Acceptance Speech

I accept this award as representative of hundreds of thousands of Houstonians who helped a quarter of a million Americans. Thank you for honoring them.

Sometimes we identify political courage with unpopular advocacy. By honoring our actions during Katrina, you celebrate a different kind of courage, the courage to undertake and complete a daunting task with compassion, competence and endurance.

Our nation was formed on the two revolutionary ideals of equal rights and government as an effective servant, not master, of the people. The generation of President Kennedy and Dr. King helped finish the long first phase of this revolution by transforming the dream of equal rights into law. They passed the torch to our generation to show that we can produce in government a humble and effective servant for all Americans.

So many times our citizens have asked themselves the simple question posed by President Kennedy's brother, who spoke of dreaming things that never were and saying, why not? Why not?

Americans ask why not graduate more than 60% of our students from high school when Singapore can graduate all; why not undertake more preventive health care; why not cut expensive oil imports with autos and buildings designed to use less. And Americans asked why we couldn't act faster in evacuating tens of thousands stranded on rooftops and bridges for days in New Orleans. Why not?

Politicians often reply that we just need more political will, usually defined as voting for them. But by now we know that legislation alone does not ensure that no child is left behind or FEMA will respond. Effective public service requires that we both enlist and empower the best executive talent in our nation, people who know how to get things done.

In Houston we put over 150,000 Americans on the road to self-sufficiency, with apartments, not trailers, schools, job training, and jobs. We used basic management principles, those typically used in business by those more concerned with results than rhetoric. We clearly defined each task, assigned the best person and organization to lead specialized teams, measured results, held people accountable, and changed tactics and responsibilities to improve performance daily. We threw away bureaucratic operating procedures and organizational charts.

The results?

One morning I asked Rick Noriega, a reserve Colonel days back from Afghanistan, to set up a shelter in our convention center to receive crowded buses with thousands of dehydrated, starving Americans. Visualize what thousands of citizens created, with no assurance of public funding, within 36 hours: 6,000 comfortable places to sleep, a complete hospital and pharmacy with 24-hour staffing, huge laundromats, libraries, banks, computer assistance for finding missing persons, employment agencies, nurseries, and a cafeteria staffed entirely by volunteers trained by churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques.

We lived the values of our faiths and responded to Americans as if they were family.

One day I stopped by an intensive 60-hour class that was part of massive job training efforts we organized for evacuees. A young man raised his hand to speak. "Mayor White," he said, "I lived all my twenty years in New Orleans. I had never thought anyone in government cared. Here people work hard to help me find a job. So something good has come from something bad."

A longtime Houston community leader put it this way: "People said we turned the corner with civil rights laws, but I never thought folks changed on the inside until I witnessed hundreds of Islamic Pakistani Americans working beside hundreds from a conservative Southern Baptist congregation to serve meals to thousands. I just saw Americans helping Americans."

Today so-called leaders encourage Americans to consume beyond their means, by shifting fiscal and environmental costs to the next generation. Those who, instead, respond to President Kennedy's inaugural call for service, can take heart in words of courage from St. Paul: from sacrifice comes endurance, from endurance comes character, from character comes hope, and hope never disappoints us.

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Delivered by Houston Mayor Bill White on receiving the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, May 21, 2007.

Click here to watch the Acceptance Speech by Houston Mayor Bill White on YouTube

(Part I) & (Part II).