Beyond Tony Meloto’s words

Dean Tony La Viña

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GK has attracted some of the best and the brightest of our students and enticed them to work with the poor beyond their college years

Let me begin with a disclosure. I know Tony Meloto well enough to claim that we are friends. I love the man and how he has inspired many – both Filipinos and foreigners and especially the young – to dedicate their lives to the poor. It is for them, more than for Tony who can defend himself, that I write this article.

To the GK leaders, workers, volunteers, and supporters, I encourage you to hold your heads high, learn and grow of course from this controversy, and grip your hearts with gratitude for the mission you have been called.

Gawad Kalinga (GK) has been a partner of the Ateneo de Manila University for more than a decade and, for a period of time, the GK office in Ateneo was located in the School of Government where I am Dean. In that capacity, through the encouragement of former Ateneo president Fr Ben Nebres SJ I got to understand the GK strategy very well and interacted with Tony Meloto himself as well as with other GK colleagues.

Although I have not worked with GK directly for a while now (the GK Ateneo office is no longer housed in our school) and I have not talked at length with Tony for a few years already, I have continued to follow GK’s work and especially its evolution in the use of a social enterprise approach.

Like many, I am fascinated by the Enchanted Farm experiment and hope it will be scaled up and can be replicated. Currently, my interaction is more with Tony’s daughter Anne Meloto-Wilk as we both serve in the board of the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia (ISEA), which I chair. As with Enchanted Farm, I am excited about the possibilities of Human Nature, Anna’s social enterprise, in advancing a social, health, and environmental agenda.

With these disclosures, let me now say without hesitation that I like Tony Meloto. I have listened not only to his words but watched his deeds over a 10-year period, and the man is authentic. In spite of his stature, Tony has remained humble and gentle, generous with time especially with young people.  He is profoundly spiritual, motivated by his Christian faith, and always kind to the people around him.

Tony is opinionated for sure. He has a clear vision and he has stuck with that for decades. At the same time, as the resort to a social enterprise approach illustrates, that vision has already evolved. I would also not consider it a solely Tony Meloto vision but one shared by a core group of volunteers with the same values and commitment to the poor.

Like I have for Tony, I only have the highest admiration for these volunteers in their love for the country and their passion for changing society for the better. I am sure that because of them GK will outlive Tony and all of its current leaders and will be around decades from now.

With this background, it came as a surprise to me when Tony was reported, during the anniversary program of the University of Hawaii Center for Philippine Studies (CPS) two months ago, to have used language demeaning to women, the poor, and Filipinos.


Opposing meanings

I have heard Tony speak many times and have been in several programs and panels together with him and I have never heard him speak that way. I was also frankly surprised that, in the very rich exchange in my Facebook threads, other colleagues I respect have heard similar words in other forums. I asked myself: are we hearing the same words and giving them opposing meanings?

Having no access to a transcript or video of his speech, I have relied on the CPS Executive Council statement and on the personal accounts of those who were present (all of whom I have high respect for) during the event. Some of the latter have posted their views on Facebook, most of them criticizing Tony and affirming that he did use the language described in the CPS statement.

But I also have received a few messages and emails from those who were there in the CPS event who were more sympathetic or understanding of Tony, although they too acknowledged that the words he used could, in fact, be described as sexist and demeaning of the poor and Filipinos.

To the credit of the CPS, they took their time – 6 weeks or so – to deliberate on this issue. Having belonged to a Filipino expatriate community once, I can imagine how heated that discussion must have been and the results of that must be received with respect.

This kind of debate can divide, even destroy a community. I hope that does not happen in the case of the CPS, a great institution that has fought big causes and has done a lot for the Philippines, its home state Hawaii, and the United States. Personally, as a fellow academic, I want to convey my support for the leadership of the CPS in this trying time. 

Until we see a video of the speech (I suspect a transcript would not be enough as it will not give us a sense of the atmosphere that surrounded the speech), I won’t be able to judge whether sexist or demeaning language was used. I will simply have to rely on my instincts – to trust that the Tony Meloto I know well is definitely not sexist, anti-poor, and unpatriotic, and to acknowledge that our colleagues in the CPS, Filipinos and Americans, are motivated only by good will and not by malice. I would also respect the observations of those who were there who have publicly attested to what they heard.


One possible explanation is that Tony Meloto usually tells stories, rather than shares abstract ideas. Some of his stories are very personal ones involving his family, and that can be a source of misunderstanding without context.

As a public speaker, I like to tell stories myself as I have discovered that, more than analysis or abstract ideas, this is the best way to teach people. But I have found that a story-telling approach can sometimes be perceived as self-serving (I-me-mine) and even egoistic. Since I have realized that, I have learned to tell not just my stories but the stories of others as well, consciously removing myself from the story.

To illustrate my point about how the same words, in this case about Filipino women, can both demean and inspire, my friend Pia Raymundo de Leon who is based in Portland, Oregon, shared in a comment to one of my posts that Tony’s words about Filipino women have been inspiring and empowering for her. Pia was the first woman (straight from undergraduate studies) to be hired in 1981 to teach philosophy in the Ateneo de Manila and is as strong a woman could ever be.

From a fairness point of view, I echo the comments of legal scholar Diane Desierto on the controversy. Diane just became tenured as law professor at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law, and is probably the most brilliant Filipino international lawyer of the last two to three generations.

I do not think it is right or necessary to raise libel at this point, which Diane (the good lawyer that she is) does, but her point about fairness should be well taken.

According to Diane: “For the sake of all parties concerned in this highly sensitive matter – it perhaps would be more prudent to release to the entire public the full text or transcript of Mr Meloto’s speech/video of his speech. While it is certainly true that the usual counterbalancing redress for offensive speech in any democracy is also speech, Mr Meloto’s speech was made in a physical venue with a specific number of guests, while the CPS Executive Council’s Statement has now reached the international/Philippine press because of its public posting online. Basic fairness – and the continuing responsibility of any university academic – demands that this disparity in publicity be redressed by full transparency of the anniversary event’s proceedings and the entire contents and contexts of Mr Meloto’s statements. Let the world be the judge.”

Tony Meloto statement | Gawad Kalinga | Screengrab from YouTube

As for Tony Meloto, I am glad he has accepted the criticism with grace and humility and has not lashed back at his critics. In a statement he released a few days ago, Tony said he was surprised and saddened by the statement as he thought that his talk was well received by the audience and the media.

My understanding though is that he did receive, almost immediately, some feedback that some in the audience were upset with what he said. I can only surmise that Tony did not realize how serious it had become and that a storm was brewing.

Effective approach

One obvious lesson to Tony and to all of us who frequently speak before public audiences is to be aware of how our words and ideas are being received. With the advent of social media and rampant audio and video recording, the potential of misunderstanding one’s words and ideas has increased exponentially.

We must not take an attitude of letting our audience sort things out for themselves and actively shape how those words and ideas are received or risk that they are misunderstood and taken out of context. I can imagine that once video of the speech is made available, segments will be spliced and re-spliced to portray Tony in the worst possible light.

Following Tony’s example, I have noticed that GK leaders, workers, and volunteers have also tempered their reactions, more hurt now than angry, resolute that this controversy will not divert them from their mission. To them, since many of them are motivated by their Christian faith, I can only say that St. Ignatius of Loyola challenges all persons of faith to desire the deepest humiliation as it is in that experience of being criticized and attacked that one is able to identify with the Lord Jesus Christ, who was also humiliated, and in fact killed, for being faithful to his mission.

Beyond Tony Meloto’s words however, the real debate we must have is whether the GK approach to housing and addressing poverty, including its reliance on corporate support, is an effective approach for authentic national and community development. There must be already objective and independent studies, including academic dissertations and theses, which have been conducted on the impact of GK.

It would be good if the findings of these studies were aired, and a robust discussion held on the success of the GK model would be good for the organization and for the Philippines in general. I hope GK would be open to that and listen to feedback that can only make it become a better organization.

While admiring GK, I have no illusion that, by itself, it will change the country or that its development and intervention model is superior to others. In my case, for example, I continue to believe that a rights-based approach to social change is still needed to reform our society. Without an analysis of social injustice, and the structures that support it, no initiative will be enough to change the country.

Yes, with charity and personal engagement, we can make a difference to individuals, families, and even communities but not the whole of society. In my view, to transform the country, we need people’s organizations and social movements that assert the rights of the poor and of peoples to land, housing, work, health, a sound environment, cultural integrity and political autonomy in the case of indigenous peoples and the Bangsamoro people, and to access by all of social and environmental justice.

This is why I am proud and supportive when students and young people close to me join marches of farmers and indigenous peoples against APECO or for Congress to extend agrarian reform, or when they join workers in pickets and in strike areas. And my heart still stops and grieves when I hear young people missing or killed because of their activism or because they have joined a revolutionary organization.

In my view, however, there is room for diverse approaches to social change. And we are better off if we don’t belittle or attack each other but are mutually supportive. The Philippines is a very big country with more than 100 million people. Not even the national government is large enough to solve all our problems. We need a TEAM Philippines as former President Fidel V. Ramos always reminds us.

In any case, GK is evolving, with social entrepreneurship now as its development model. For someone who was a pioneer in advocating this approach in the Philippines, I welcome this. And I am happy that GK is ambitious, even audacious, in scaling up its work to transform communities. I truly believe that the proliferation of social enterprises could be a game-changer in the fight against poverty.

Let me end by praising the volunteerism that is the ethos of GK. In fact, one of the first things I noticed with GK was that, in Ateneo de Manila and other schools, it had attracted some of the best and the brightest of our students and enticed them to work with the poor beyond their college years.

Thirty years ago, when I first started teaching philosophy, these students would have joined militant organizations. There must be something in GK to have inspired these young men and women to take on the mission to change the country.

For the honor of knowing, working, and loving these young people, even for this alone, I thank Tony Meloto and Gawad Kalinga. –

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