YAKIMA, Wash. — In a community like Yakima, which struggles with gang violence, poverty and other issues, making a difference may seem an insurmountable task for an individual, but according to Maria Shriver, that’s the way changing the world usually starts: by one person caring about another.
“People rarely get in trouble if they think they’re seen, if they’re valued, if they’re loved, if they’re cared for,” Shriver said.
Shriver is an award-winning journalist, author and activist, who champions women’s equality and a greater focus on Alzheimer’s research. She spoke to the Yakima community Wednesday at the Capitol Theatre, kicking off the 50th annual Yakima Town Hall speaker series.
“Just in the 24 hours that I’ve been here, I have found this to be a very gracious, kind, hospitable community,” Shriver said.
Speaking to the crowd, Shriver let it be known that any person with the heart and the temerity to do so, can make a lasting difference in this world.
“Most people think, ‘Oh, an architect of change is someone who’s making a difference, someone running for office or someone who has a big company,” Shriver said.
In interviews with people from all walks of life, Shriver found people consistently say the person who had the most influence on them was someone closer to home: their mother, their father, their grandmother, their grandfather, their first boss or mentor.
Shriver said it’s not a person’s popularity or relative importance in a community that counts: it’s whether they’re able to help the people around them see themselves as someone worthy, worth saving, who exists for a specific reason and has a distinct purpose in life.
However, the quality of caring for other people is not always appreciated. Shriver said people who care are often looked at as soft, but they often end up being the catalyst for change in others’ lives.
Yakima Town Hall board president Jill Falk said it was people who cared, specifically a group of strong-willed and determined women, who founded the speaker series in the early 1970s out of a desire to bring diverse voices to a typically conservative area.
The women successfully established an annual program that’s lasted for half a century, despite beginning the endeavor in a time where second-wave feminists were still trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s voices often went unheard.
“These women are super strong, super talented and obviously weren’t easily dissuaded from their goal,” Falk said. “So whatever those barriers were, they overcame them.”
Over the years, the speaker series has brought in big names like Gore Vidal, Walter Cronkite, Jane Goodall, Laura Bush, Gena Davis, Gloria Steinem, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Henry Kissinger.
“We’ve definitely had some controversy, but when that happens, we’re doing our job,” Falk said.
Falk said the most recent controversy regarding the speaker series was over their decision to bring in Monica Lewinsky.
“She has a powerful message on surviving public shame, bullying, that we felt was such an important topic for the young people — especially the people in our community — that we felt it was worth the pushback that we did get,” Falk said.
Falk said while their goal is to inspire the entire community, it’s the students they’re hoping will take away the most from the people they hear speak. She said they give away 150 tickets for each event to area schools to provide to eighth grade to college-age students.
“I hope the students today listen to Maria’s strong message and know that they can chart their lives as a strong powerful person and the direction that they want to go,” Falk said.
Tickets are still available for the remainder of the speaker series. Upcoming speakers include NASA scientist Dr. Moogega Cooper, exoneree Amanda Knox and historian Jon Meacham. The lineup for next season will be announced in December.
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