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Let’s Tell Better Stories

Prebys CEO Grant Oliphant gave the following speech at the Iranian American Bar Association to celebrate the Persian New Year known as Nowruz. As his communications director, I found his speech inspiring and thought you might too, so we wanted to share


At the Prebys Foundation, we believe part of our job is to inspire our fellow community members and to be inspired by them. In this speech, Grant is clearly inspired by the work of IABA and encourages us all to aim higher so that we have the fuel to achieve a future that is rich in culture, rights, and the ability express ourselves. Please give this a read and let us know what you think.

-Crystal

Grant Oliphant speaking at the Iranian American Bar Association Nowruz celebration
Grant Oliphant speaking at the Iranian American Bar Association Nowruz celebration

Good evening and thank you. And thank you especially to Ava and Haida for inviting me. It's a pleasure and an honor to be here with the Iranian American Bar Association for this early celebration of Nowruz. Happy New Year to all!


When I accepted your invitation to speak here this evening, I went online to see the types of speakers who typically keynote these celebrations. What I found, no surprise, was an honor roll of esteemed justices, judges, lawyers, all kinds of superstars in the legal firmament. And now, well... in my first year out of college I worked in a law firm for a year before realizing I couldn’t afford law school. But, still: last year you had the District Attorney—this year you have a guy who did a stint as a paralegal 40 years ago. I hate to say it, but your standards may be slipping a bit.


Seriously, though, it is a delight to be here with you. I am inspired by your commitment to helping Iranian American students receive scholarship support so they can complete their legal education. I am also inspired by the bravery and persistence of those who refused to let the Travel Ban stand here in San Diego. Thank you to those who fought with the tools of the law, but also who chose to sit in, speak up, and support as legal observers. We may face more tough times ahead, but I know that with your energy, creativity, and commitment to San Diego, we can and will defend the principles that matter most.


This evening is special for me. My daughter-in-law, my son’s wife Sahar, is half-Persian. And they blessed their son, who is Aradhna's and my first grandchild, now all of 1-year old, with a Persian name—Arman, which means “wish” or “hope.”


And since you invited me here to celebrate Nowruz, one of the most ancient festivals in the world and an occasion that is all about hope and resilience, that is what I want to talk about with you this evening—what it means for us, together, to create an even more hopeful and resilient future.


I want to sell you on the idea that we can. We here in this room, and we here in San Diego, really can create an even more hopeful and resilient future for all our people. And I’m going to offer three concrete examples of how we can do that, and the good news is, you are already a part of them.


Now, it’s no secret that these are hard times for hope. Many of you may have seen the report in today’s WSJ that Gen Z, our youngest living generation, are the least hopeful and the most despairing. The very young people who should be the most excited about the future, instead are the most fearful, disengaged and dispirited.


How could that be?


Graph of pessimism among US 12 graders over time
From the Wall Street Journal's article "The Rough Years That Turned Gen Z Into America’s Most Disillusioned Voters"

Well, for one thing, they have good reason. This is an era of epic challenges: a rapidly warming planet, climate denialism and defeatism, war and terrorism, nuclear threats...closer to home, a mental health crisis, political divisiveness, assaults on women’s rights, threats to our democracy, epidemics of loneliness and despair, widening wealth disparity, racism, religious and ethnic intolerance, inequity, homelessness... the list is long. And older generations seem utterly paralyzed, so of course the world feels irreparably stuck, and not just to young people.


But is it? Or is that a story we are telling ourselves because the world is in transition and feels so uncertain?


The mythologist and writer Martin Shaw has written that “Bad storytellers cast spells. Great storytellers break them.” I think we are under the spell of some bad storytelling right now. We are under the spell of a story telling us that the world is uniquely broken and that change is beyond us. It tells us we must dumb down our dreams and hollow out our imaginations and settle for the scraps of past hopes. It defines resilience as bouncing back to something that used to be, instead of how any immigrant family could tell you resilience works in practice, which is not bouncing back but bouncing forward to something new.


We need better stories. As the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris has commented, “Problems are not anomalies.” They are baked into the human condition. In its 3000-year history, Nowruz has opened on darkness many times—yet here we are, in a world unimaginable to the ancestors who started this tradition millennia ago. We face challenges, for sure, but they will only be our undoing if we let them.


So how do we start telling these better stories? How do we break the spell that tells us we can’t? Let me offer three, close to home, in areas where I think San Diego could honestly lead the world in a new, more positive direction.


The first is a story of belonging. San Diego offers a rich tapestry of cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds that make it not just a place on the map but a uniquely vibrant community. We are a trinational region separated by a border but united in a shared culture and environmental and economic destiny. Diversity is not just a buzzword here—it is our strength, the cornerstone upon which we can build a region where every voice is heard, and every individual feels they belong. What if we made that our story?


At Prebys, we believe we can. We are committed to fostering this sense of belonging in every corner of our community. From supporting arts and culture festivals that celebrate our diverse heritage to funding programs that empower underserved communities to sharing the inspiring stories of our Leaders in Belonging, we are on a mission to create an inclusive environment that respects and values the uniqueness of each individual. We believe that this work also connects to the well-being of our youth. When youth feel safe enough to belong and be themselves, we will have healthier, happier, more engaged young San Diegans.


We believe San Diego has the potential to prove to a divided world that we can not only bridge our differences but flourish from them. We can be the place that proves the long wished-for promise of America as a place for everyone regardless of all the differences that are used to divide us. To borrow from a Gen Z ism, am I being delulu? No. I am simply tapping into purpose.


Definition of Delulu: a sland shortening of the word delusional

Ok, how about a second story, this time about civil society and democracy? In a world brimming with challenges, the need for active participation by everyone in our community's governance and development has never been more acute. And never have we been more aware, by the way, of the legal profession’s role as a bulwark of democratic society and the rule of law.


The prevailing narrative tells us that people are opting out, that we are increasingly disconnected from community and disinterested in problem solving, that incivility is growing and will only get worse, that polarization and partisanship are permanent and inevitable.


And yet—there are countless organizations in San Diego telling a very different story. The National Conflict Resolution Center tells stories of bridging differences and finding common ground. Groups like Outdoor Outreach show us that when youth are given the opportunity to use their voice on behalf of something they care about, they will engage and they will use their voice. Groups like inewsource and Voice of San Diego prove that people still want to hear the real stories of their community. Arts groups like transcenDance demonstrate that when people are allowed to express themselves through their creativity, they will find renewed purpose and a language for expressing it.


What if we made THAT our story?


We believe that in San Diego, we can. We support efforts all around our region to engage people, young and old, and to tell a story we all want to become a part of shaping. I know that in your work in the legal field, you, too, work to engage on behalf of those who might not otherwise have such an opportunity to shape society, The evidence here is clear: When we feel like we matter, we are empowered to shape our destiny, advocate for change, and be the architects of our collective future.


We can tell that story here. Let’s tell it together.


And while we’re at it, let’s tell a third story—this time about what a healthy community really looks like.


At Prebys we believe in a story of community wellness that is not just about the amazing health institutions that we are privileged to have here. Our story is also about who gets to access that care. And it is about so much more than that care.


It is also about clean air and water. It is about no longer tolerating, for years and decades on end, pollution in the Tijuana River Valley and its impacts on the livelihoods, culture, assets and health of those who live there.


It is also about access to nature, getting outdoors, touching the earth, engaging in play. It is about art and expression and creativity, and the capacity to think beyond today through the power of imagination that only wonder and creativity can unleash.


What if we made THAT our story? Well, this time I’m going to tell you, that already IS our story in San Diego. We just have to wake up to it and start shouting it from the rooftops. The most biodiverse county in the continental US, a cultural dynamo between the ocean and the desert, San Diego already has the art, culture, natural assets and love of the outdoors to make this our story of what we mean by community wellness.


And in telling that story here, in a place that is literally inventing the future, we can inspire our country and perhaps our world to think of human beings differently—not as problems to be fixed, or as pathologies and afflictions to be cured, but as dynamic beings thirsty for communities that feed not just our bellies but also our minds and hearts and spirits. I think the world could use that message, and I think we can tell it.


Listen, those are three stories we care about. You may have others. The point is less the stories themselves than simply to convey this: In difficult and challenging times, it is not only possible for us to dream bigger dreams and hold tight to great hopes. It is essential. It is what we are here to do, in this place, in this moment, on this Nowruz. The real crisis we face is not one of circumstance but of purpose, but we have it within us to rediscover the why that will power us through anyhow.


A picture of Migration that shows birds with human heads in flight
"Migration" by Mohammad Barrangi. Photo from the San Diego Museum of Art

In the Persian collection at the San Diego Museum of Art there is a piece I love called “Migration” by the Iranian-born artist Mohammad Barrangi. The story behind this piece, which shows a flock of birds in flight, references the Monterrater, or Conference of the Birds, a 12th century poem attributed to the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar. In that poem, the birds of the world journey to find the mythical bird king Simorgh, only to discover at the end that they are themselves, collectively, the Simorgh.


Every tradition in the world has a story like this. In modern times it was reborn as Gandhi’s notion that we are the solution we are looking for, and in Margaret Mead’s idea that small communities of committed people are precisely what changes the world.


They do that—we do that—by breaking the trance of the old stories. We do that by knowing we can do big, hard things, and setting out to prove it. We do that by bouncing forward into a new world that, together, we will be brave and creative enough to imagine into being.


Thank you for your attention, and more importantly for all the work you do for this community, and for your partnership in making San Diego the great, inspiring model it truly can be.


On this auspicious day, as we approach this new year, may joy and love guide you. Have a blessed Nowruz!

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