On Friday, October 18, hundreds of leaders came to The Beverly Hilton—and over 125,000 more joined via livestream online—to participate in the 2019 Hilton Humanitarian Symposium and Prize Ceremony, honoring the 2019 Hilton Humanitarian Prize recipient, METAdrasi – Action for Migration and Development. This year’s theme “The Future of Humanitarian Action: Seeking Higher Ground” guided the topics addressed at the daylong symposium by esteemed speakers, including: Maria Shriver, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, New York Time Pulitzer Prize-winning Staff Photographer Tyler Hicks, Award-winning Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and many more.

Dr. Tererai Trent, who credits 2004 Hilton Humanitarian Prize Laureate Heifer International as part of her inspiring journey in becoming the woman she is today, opened the day with a motivating call to action, encouraging the audience to answer a single question: “What breaks your heart? It is, in that question, in those moments of what breaks our heart, that’s where we find the energy to go out into the world and make a difference.

Following Dr. Trent’s moving words, Maria Shriver, founder of The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, moderated a panel entitled “What Is the Future of Humanitarian Action: An Intergenerational Conversation.” Panelists Sister Joan Chittister, author, theologian and American Benedictine nun, and Natasha Wang Mwansa, health, women and young people’s rights activist and advocate of the Media Network on Child Rights and Development, spoke to the importance of including individuals of all ages and experiences in the conversation about what the future of humanitarian action can and should look like. The panelists emphasized that everyone has a role in this future action—as Sister Joan remarked: “Humanitarianism, as far as I’m concerned…is the best proof we have of our humanity.”

The panel that followed, “‘Impossible Is Not a Fact, It Is an Attitude’: A Conversation on Climate Change Solutions,” opened with a powerful poem entitled “I Grew, Giant,” written and recited by Climate Warrior Selina Neirok Leem—an islander from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Upon finishing her poem, Leem was joined on stage by the panel’s moderator, Founding President and Editor-in-Chief of Devex Raj Kumar, along with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Former Executive Secretary of the UN Climate Convention (2010-2016) and Founding Partner of Global Optimism Christiana Figueres. The panelists engaged in an urgent, yet optimistic solutions-centered conversation about climate change that explored the local, national and global work being done to address the overwhelming impact of the issue at hand. Toward the end of the discussion, Figueres emboldened the audience and her co-panelists:

“We have to be able to solve this and the only way to do it is to have that gritty, stubborn optimism to get us through.”

Using powerful images, Pulitzer Prize-winning Staff Photographer for The New York Times Tyler Hicks came on stage next, delivering a moving presentation that visually recounted his assignments with The New York Times that took him around the world covering different humanitarian crises, including to Yemen, where the country’s nearly five-year-long war has created what the United Nations calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Next came a captivating conversation about racial justice as a human rights issue. The panel discussion, entitled “When Overcoming Bias Requires Walking Toward It: A Discussion on Race,” was moderated by President of The Marshall Project Carroll Bogert, in discussion with UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance E. Tendayi Achiume and Co-founder of Black Lives Matter Global Network and Co-creator of Crenshaw Dairy Mart Patrisse Cullors. Cullors challenged the audience to consider reimagining what our justice systems could look like, with humanity at the center of that design: “Policing prisons, detention centers, borders, all of these places and spaces are really about one single thing, a serious disconnection from each other, as human beings. And so, what do we imagine reconnection looking like?“

Carroll Bogert, E. Tendayi Achiume, Patrisse Cullors at 2019 Prize Event
L to R: Carroll Bogert, E. Tendayi Achiume and Patrisse Cullors in the panel entitled When Overcoming Bias Requires Walking Toward It: A Discussion on Race.

Later that afternoon, the audience warmly welcomed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “Americanah,” “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Purple Hibiscus” to the stage for her highly anticipated address. She closed her remarks encouraging the audience to continue working for a better future: “And especially today that is politically fraught, we must seek the higher ground of multiple stories as a rebuke to despair. We cannot afford despair; we cannot afford hopelessness; we cannot afford cynicism; we cannot afford the defeat of the human spirit; we cannot lose sight of the enduring importance of compassion and kindness.”

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to learning about and celebrating the 2019 Hilton Humanitarian Prize recipient, METAdrasi. Lora Pappa, who founded the organization, came on stage to receive the award. In her acceptance remarks, Pappa reflected on the Last Will and Testament of Conrad N. Hilton, and the inspiration that she and others might take from it: “Conrad Hilton said: ‘There is a natural law, a divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute.’ So what is this natural law? Well this natural law is not learned from books or at the University. Believe me. Some people call it empathy, some compassion, humanity. But, I believe, that the real teacher is our soul. Fulfilling our soul makes us soar high in the sky and when this happens, we know that we are on the right path.”

2019 Official Prize Photo


Steven M. Hilton, Lora Pappa, Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni and Peter Laugharn at the 2019 Hilton Humanitarian Symposium and Prize Ceremony.

In closing, Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, deputy secretary-general of the Council of Europe, took the stage to commend the great work of METAdrasi and the importance of not only raising awareness of the realities of migrants around the world, but in providing humanitarian action: “Ultimately, it comes down to this: Every woman, man, and child, has the right to live in safety, as we heard, security, and dignity.”

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Highlights from the 2019 Hilton Humanitarian Symposium and Prize Ceremony
Photography by Clark Jones