Presented during Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation's NextGen Leadership Program session entitled "Redefining L.A.W. (Land, Air, and Water)," where I was invited give a short talk as my dad's reactor. Transcript edited for brevity and clarity.
My dad's introduction: She was once a theatre artist. I have asked her not to follow my footsteps. Don't follow my footsteps. Our footsteps. Start from you where you saw us. In the case of Anna, my daughter, she has, at a very early age, found her heart, which is the most important part of one's career. Once you find it, follow it and sing and dance to the music of your heart. I now present to you my greatest trophy, my greatest accomplishment: to have a daughter who not only defends the fish who do not pay lawyer's fees, but is also a semi-human and semi-fish. She is a mermaid. The Chief Mermaid. Anna, you have the floor.
Thanks, Pa. Good morning, everyone! I'm here to share five lessons I learned from my dad, Atty. Tony Oposa (2009 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee), that I try to apply in my own work.
1. Stand up for yourself, but most importantly, stand up for others.
Growing up, I always saw my dad stand up for himself, for other people, and the environment. The environment part, you are already familiar with. Here's a less familiar story: a few years ago, our family was in the airport of Manila. I don't remember where we came from, but what I do remember is that there were multiple immigration officers attending to foreigners, and only one for locals, so you can imagine how long the line was for Filipinos. My dad caused a commotion because he demanded the reverse: more lines for locals, and fewer lines for foreigners. The management followed, and it benefited the hundreds of Filipinos waiting in line. It was a simple act of leadership and courage in an everyday situation. When we witness injustice in small and big ways, we have to find the courage to change the system, not just the particular moment, so that the collective benefits now and in the future. When I witness injustice and stand up for myself, I always try to point out that [making changes] is not just about what happened to me, but also about other people who may experience if we don't make changes.
2. Every person matters.
In our family, my dad and I are the high extroverts. He can sit beside someone on a plane and by the end of the trip, he'll know his seatmate's job, family, and employment history. He already probably invited that person to Bantayan Island. I'm the same. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to a stranger and within five minutes, that person is telling me about her recent breakup and her existential crisis. She'll then ask me for advice.
I've always seen my dad treat everyone with equal kindness and respect, whether it's a street vendor or a President of the Philippines. This is a trait I've taken to heart. Pre-pandemic, when we would have events, the first thing [our team] does is learn all the names of the venue's staff (e.g., custodians, catering personnel, et al). We make sure to acknowledge each one for their support at the end of the program when the participants' certificates are being given. Seeing people as equal, and giving everyone the same care, attention, and respect is one of the most important traits anyone should have, and even more so if you want to pursue a career in development.
3. Knowing what you don't want is as valuable as knowing what you want.
After college, I had the chance to work for my dad in his NGO. It was a master class in environmental law and strategy, but it soon became apparent that my dad and I had very different working styles. He's a free spirit, while I like timelines, to-do lists, and Gantt charts. The discipline and long attention span definitely came from my mom, and I'm sure my dad would agree. He's more efficient when he works alone, while I thrive in communities and teams. The experience taught me many lessons of what I didn't want to do or how I didn't want to work, which became the jump-off point for knowing what I wanted to do. He eventually closed down the NGO, which was opportunity for me to create my own -- and that's Save Philippine Seas.
I'm sharing this because some of you might be in courses or jobs that you don't like or don't enjoy. That experience won't be a waste or failure if you learn from it and take those lessons to shape and write the next chapter of your life.
4. Shine your light on others.
I resisted being an environmental advocate for a long time because it was my dad's profession and he is so well-known. I can't go anywhere without people asking how I'm related to him. While my last name opened many doors for me, it also became a source of anxiety. People said things like, "She wouldn't get this job if she weren't Atty. Oposa's daughter," or "You have big shoes to fill!" or even, "What's it like to be in your dad's shadow?"
I never wanted to follow my dad's footsteps or fill in his shoes - I was content swimming in my own fins. What made all the difference was that my dad never made me feel like I was in his shadow -- he always made me feel like I was in his light. My dad has always been - and continues to be - a generous person and he intentionally shines his big light on others. What he has, he shares, whether it's time, connections, money, or resources. In one event that we were together, the moderator asked how he wanted to be introduced, and he said, "as Anna's father."
He has opened many doors for me, and now that I'm an educator and conservationist who works with a lot of young people, I make sure I leave those doors open and make them even wider for more people to enter. My goal as a mentor is for my mentees to be better than me.
5. Take problems of the environment seriously, but never take yourself seriously. Learn to play.
Many years ago, I was working on a law enforcement project and the mayor of the town I was working in not only rejected it, but also yelled at me and threatened me. I had to take a long bus ride after that, and I couldn't stop crying on the bus. (I'm sure the guy beside me was a bit freaked out. Sorry.) I called my dad, in tears. He started laughing at me. At first I was even more upset that he started laughing at me. He said, "Congratulations!" He congratulated me for having courage to do what I just did, but also for facing rejection. "So what will you do next?" With that question, he made me realize that the setback shouldn't define me, but how I reacted to it. Work shouldn't feel like a battle, but a game. As a very Type A, competitive person, this is hard for me because I always want to the best and win (sometimes at the expense of my health). When I catch myself getting too caught up, I remind myself to reframe my work into a game and learn to play.
I hope that these lessons are valuable for you as the next generation leaders. Don't try to be the next Atty. Oposa or the next Anna Oposa - just focus on being the best version of yourself. While doing this, stand up for yourself and others, treat everyone with kindness and respect, know what you want and don't want, shine your light on others, and most importantly, have fun.