Alex Counts is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation.
Today’s ceremony where President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Professor Muhammad Yunus and 15 other incredibly accomplished citizens was a moment when any American, and any person, who wants the world to be a better place could feel proud. America’s highest civilian award was a well-deserved honor for Dr. Yunus based on more than three decades of accomplishment benefiting Bangladesh’s and the world’s poor, through championing microfinance and social business.
When President and Michelle Obama entered the room at 3:10pm, there was electricity unlike anything I had ever felt.
Clearly, the President was enjoying the opportunity to honor people he deeply admired. The medals were presented roughly in alphabetical order, so Professor Yunus was nearly the last to be mentioned in the President’s speech and called up to receive his medal. The two exchanged a few words before the President fastened the medal around Professor Yunus’ neck. The moment when the President presented the medal was magical – one that I was able to capture with my camera/phone. During the reception afterward, where people like Sidney Portier, Desmond Tutu and Billie Jean King mingled with assorted guests and friends of the honorees, a new friend and I speculated about why President Obama did not mention that his mother was an earlier pioneer in the microfinance field, based in Indonesia. We concluded that the President – despite his deep personal connections to the work of Dr. Yunus, Rev. Lowery and others – wanted to keep the spotlight firmly focused on the honorees, rather than on himself. How appropriate!
When Dr. Yunus’ invitees got their picture taken with the President and First Lady, I introduced myself and mentioned that I was President of Grameen Foundation. Michelle Obama said, “That’s great!” Dr. Yunus, standing nearby, said, “So, you should be talking to each other” – pointing to Mrs. Obama and to me. I can only hope that is what the future holds. For now, I am basking in a day where I can feel proud of my country and my association with Grameen, and appreciate my good fortune to be able to work under Dr. Yunus’ halo in pursuit of a poverty-free world.