Lee Bycel is the executive director for the Bay Area-based Redford Center, created by Robert Redford to bring together leaders and artists “to collaborate in cultivating creative, action-based solutions to some of today’s most compelling civic, environmental and social challenges.” Bycel, an ordained rabbi who has made several humanitarian trips to Darfur and Chad, tells us about the people who have inspired him, the words that have made an impact, and how he believes every human being is a “decent, good person.”
Who has made the biggest impression on you?
A Darfur refugee named Adam Kounongo who lives in a Chad refugee camp. I admire his courage, his conviction and the fact that he’s never given up hope in circumstances that are unimaginable to any of us. He helped give me perspective of how blessed we are in this country, how much we can do and how much our acts do matter. I learned a lot from him about the sacredness of life and never giving up hope.
What book has had an impact on you?
“Who is Man?” by Abraham Joshua Heschel. He talks about what it is to be human and what it is to be humane. It’s a collection of lectures he gave at Stanford in the 1960s. I reread it every year because it challenges me.
What is your “Golden Rule?”
That nearly every human being on earth is really a decent, good person. In our everyday efforts, how do we create a world in which that goodness and decency can emerge?
What would you want your colleagues to say about you?
That I live out my words in actions; that I walk the walk; that I don’t forget those in need.
What is the best thing about your job?
Being part of a new center whose mission is to inspire positive social and environmental change through the arts, education and civil discourse. I love working with a man like Robert Redford who has such integrity and is so down-to-earth and who’s really passionate about making this world better.
What is the worst thing about your job?
There’s so much to do, and I wish we had enough resources to do this at a much larger level.
To what or whom do you turn to in dark or troubled times?
To the touchstones and anchors of my life: my family, friends, nature. Also to writings like Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail.
Where do you find inspiration?
From people who commit their lives to helping others and who are willing to sacrifice a lot, whether it’s a nurse in a hospital, a humanitarian worker in a refugee camp — anyone who views life as being more than just about themselves and understands their connection to others.
What’s something about you that people would find surprising?
That I’ve been doing this kind of thing since 2004. People who know me wouldn’t think Lee is the kind of guy who’s going to spend time in refugee camps in East Chad or Darfur. I’ve always taken risks and believed that you had to stand up for justice and the underprivileged.
What can ordinary people do to help the situation in Darfur?
We can take them into our hearts and see them as human beings, not just a bunch of numbers. It’s about understanding that these people are just like you and me: They want food, water, shelter, education, hope; they want everything you and I want. … What every person can do is say that this matters.