[OPINION] 'Never feel small': What I learned as Gina Lopez's executive assistant

Love for a boss is rare.

Ask any employee for the first word that comes to mind upon hearing the word “boss,” and I’ll bet anything it’s either “stress” or “toxic” or “hate,” among others. More often than not, bosses complicate our lives, scare the hell out of us, and make us want to go to therapy.

But let me tell you a story of a “boss” who changed it all.

It was in February 2017 when I first directly reported to then-Environment Secretary Gina Lopez. As her executive assistant, I accompanied her to a roundtable discussion with the Manila Times to present her mining rehabilitation plans.

I was nervous beyond my wits but I was also excited, because it’s not every day that I get to be with THE Gina Lopez. After the meeting, when we were inside the van already, to my surprise she asked me, “Do you have questions, Alecks?”

“Where do you get your courage?” I replied.

“From God. You have to believe in what you do. Never feel small.”

Never feel small. That was the very first lesson she instilled in me. You see, after every speaking engagement, she would always tell everyone, “You can be anything, do anything.” She would say these words with such life and energy, you’d start believing they were true. She had a level of charisma that enticed your brain cells to give full attention to what she was saying.

One time, she visited a community whose outraged protesters didn’t want the mining company in their area to be closed. It also happened to be her bodyguard’s birthday. She literally asked the protesters to pause and sing "Happy Birthday" for her bodyguard. One second they were an angry mob, the next, they were a celebratory clan. Who else in the world could make angry protesters sing "Happy Birthday?" Only Gina Lopez.

Gina was the embodiment of the word "fearless" in all ways possible. She fought all those mining giants when no one else would even dare. Her belief in her principles was so strong, it was enough to shield her from all the death threats that came her way. And when the big C waged a war against her, she chose to still see the positive and said: “I had cancer and it didn’t bother me at all, because as far as I saw, it was a piece of paper. You just keep positive because cancer works on fear. Don’t worry about it and anything can be fixed.”

Once I asked her if she had ever thought of running ABS-CBN, and she said: “No. I never wanted it. I love helping others. That’s my passion.”

And indeed, she helped others. You see, after her rejection as environment secretary, she could have opted to retire and just enjoy life, because she definitely could. She had the resources anyway. But even without the position, she continued to serve. During that time, she wasn’t allowed to go back to ABS-CBN's Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation for a year due to conflicts of interest with the Department of Environment and Natural Resouces. But due to her deep desire to raise sustainable communities, she founded an organization and called it ILOVE (Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies). 

She advocated for area development that nurtured, developed, and protected the strengths and potential of the area with a non-negotiable commitment to the people living there. She believed in the power of communities to organize themselves and manage sustainable livelihoods without forgetting to care for the environment.

In a country where political and business interests almost always prevailed, she was the hope in Pandora’s box, the one who’d make you believe that there were still good people in this world. Although she came from an elite family, her heart was always with the people. She would conduct dialogues with them and be all ears, giving them the chance to voice out their suffering. During our estero (creekside) visits, never once did she hesitate to go inside the houses there. She would interact with everyone, carry children, and hug them like they were her own. In every community that we visited, there was never a time when she was not welcomed by, “Kayo na lang po ang pag-asa namin, Secretary Gina (You're our only hope, Secretary Gina)." 

She never put people in boxes. For her, there was goodness in everyone. And because there was kindness in every person, she believed that there was no problem that couldn’t be solved by working together. No matter who you were or where you were from, as long as you had the heart, there was something that you could do.

Though her stint in the DENR was short-lived, her message surely rang the longest and the loudest. And in my opinion, arguably longer and louder than any other DENR secretary that ever stood.

She did not treat her employees as mere employees. She treated them as family. Every time she would go out with her sons to lunch, dinner, or to a movie, she would invite her whole staff to join them. She was the kind of boss who would randomly take you shopping, who would organize birthday surprises for you, who would remember your favorite things and tell you: “I know you love it. That’s why I gave it to you.”

When the time came for me to choose a different path and focus on theater, she gave her full support.

“Hey, sweetheart, I totally understand. I always wondered why you were with us if your interest was acting. Don’t worry, we will figure it out. And yes, I do love you. And yes, never ever ever ever EVER feel you are small,” she said.

I didn’t lose contact with her after I resigned. From time to time, I would share my little successes in acting with her. She would congratulate me and remind me that when I became famous, I would donate to ILOVE so we could raise an island – an inside joke between us, and a promise I intend to keep. 

There are people in this world you know you will meet again somewhere, some other time, because there are plenty of them around. There are also people who are the opposite of that. And GL was one of them. Once you met her, you knew that there could never be anyone else like her. She was once in a lifetime.

Gina Lopez changed the perceptions one could have of a boss, as she was a game changer in everything. But this was probably because she wasn't just any boss; she was a mother – to nature, to the country, to her sons, to her employees, and to anyone she had ever encountered.

As my boss, indeed, she complicated my life. But only because her advocacies were worth complicating my life for.

As my boss, indeed, she scared the hell out of me. But only because we were making history.

As my boss, indeed, she made me want to go to therapy. But only because I am now referring to her in the past tense. And I don’t understand why she would ever be in the past tense, as if her life could ever be measured by a grammar rule, emphasizing its finality.

Aside from "I Believe I Can Fly," "You" by the Carpenters was one of her favorite songs. It perfectly suits her, because Gina Lopez is one of the few things worth remembering.

GL, I can never thank you enough for letting me fly with you. I’ll keep the light shining. – Rappler.com 

Alecks Ambayec is an environmental advocate by day, and an aspiring actress by night. She finds delight in travel, photography, theater, film, and literature.