The Delta Gamma Foundation and the University of Michigan Office of Greek Life welcomed 2011 CNN Hero Derreck Kayongo Monday evening as the keynote speaker for the University’s fourth Delta Gamma Lectureship in Values & Ethics.
Kayongo’s speech centered on how his personal experiences with his family and as a refugee in Kenya shaped his desire to establish the Global Soap Project, which takes donated, reprocessed soap from hotels and distributes it to communities in need. Along with founding the Global Soap Project, Kayongo is currently the CEO for the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
LSA sophomore Kim Ira, director of lectureship for the Delta Gamma Xi chapter, explained the organization selected Kayongo for his humanitarian efforts and desire for social change. The annual lectureship, endowed in 2010 by Ann Arbor Delta Gamma chapters and alums, is one of 20 such lectureships which take place across the country.
“Derreck embodies a lot of humanitarian values and I thought his story of social entrepreneurship could be something really relevant to the Michigan campus because so many people here are ambitious and driven but they have a social change mindset along with this,” Ira said. “Derreck’s message, his backstory as a refugee, his message of public health, social change and a business mindset is something that appeals to so many people on the Michigan campus and it really represents the values of Delta Gamma.”
Kayongo began by describing how his parents’ professions in business fields shaped his childhood in Uganda as well the various political issues the country faced, which eventually led to his family fleeing to Kenya. He recalled an instance where a firing squad began killing people in his village and caused him to distrust adults because of the damage they could cause in an area.
“I was 10 years old watching adults destroy our village and our country,” Kayongo said. “I wondered who are these people, when do you become an adult who destroys an environment in which people must exist. So for me, adults were the most untrustworthy people you could ever meet.”
Eventually, Kayongo’s family fled to Kenya as refugees fleeing the civil war in Uganda. After receiving a scholarship to attend Tufts University, Kayongo moved to Philadelphia, which became the birthplace of his idea for the Global Soap Program. Kayongo remembered staying in a hotel upon his arrival to the U.S, and his surprise upon discovering 800 million bars of used hotel soap are thrown away each year.
“Can you imagine delivering children as a refugee woman and the midwife goes in to deliver your child and doesn’t wash her hands and leaves you with a germ that kills you in two weeks?” Kayongo said. “It’s called childbed fever. Yet here we are in this country with 2 million dead children every year to lower respiratory disease.”
Kayongo then went on to offer important lessons he learned while developing the Global Soap Project including leadership, service, and business. He explained the value of observation, valuing each person and their contributions and how true leaders are born through service.
“A human being who walks around arrogant, and they assume they know everything … They lie because they have never been at the ground level to understand that housekeeper mama, they’ve never been at the ground level to see that refugee child,” Kayongo said.
He also tied his own experience to University students and explained the importance of believing in one another to succeed as a unit.
“Remember as you go out and finish school here at the University of Michigan, that the only way this school becomes permanent in its status intellectually … is if you have faith in all of us to be part of the story,” Kayongo said.
Kinesiology and Business senior Abigail Ruch said she resonated with Kayongo’s message and explained she appreciated how he was able to make his experiences relatable to the audience.
“It was really valuable that he catered his speech to students,” Ruch said. “We have a lot of speakers who come in here and kind of talk about their experiences but don’t really understand how they’re going to connect it back to their audience. I think for him, it was really smart not to make himself like a hero but make him seem relatable, and be like anyone can do this, anyone can achieve this.”
Ruch also discussed the relationship between Kayongo’s efforts and Delta Gamma’s values, especially in regards to spending time with those in vulnerable communities.
“We’re really focused on actually giving our time,” Ruch said. “(Delta Gamma is) not focused on giving money, and that’s a valuable cause, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that we have so many chapters here on campus who focus on raising money and giving it to a good cause. For me, I think the value is in going out and doing things and meeting people because you’ll learn things you’ve never learned before.”
Ira shared Ruch’s sentiments and discussed how many people on the University’s campus can relate to what Kayongo had to say.
“I really liked his message especially that all good leaders have engaged in service before,” Ira said. “I think all aspects of his talk are something that every Michigan student can take throughout the rest of their career here and whatever career or passions they pursue post-graduation. I think what he said about being a leader, an active and engaged leader, in everything you do with a service mindset is so important.”