By Harold McNeil
News Staff Reporter
Published:March 15, 2012
Caring and empathy are the cornerstones of social justice, Maureen Orth, an award-winning journalist and author, told young women Wednesday evening at Nardin Academy.
Abundant opportunities await students of the all-girls Catholic high school, but the fruits of their education should not just accrue to them, but to others, Orth said.
Orth was the keynote speaker for the school’s annual forum on social justice, which was attended by about 500 people.
Orth, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 1964, served for two years in the Peace Corps in Medellin, Colombia, where she helped build Escuela Marina Orth, a school that was named in her honor.
“I learned so much there about the way God does not discriminate when he hands out brains or talent, or how happy you could be with far less than what we Americans have come to demand and expect, and also how very important it is to learn to empathize and to look at the world from another person’s point of view,” Orth said.
Orth said she was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s call to service and also was influenced by “the Catholic values I grew up with that caring for those who have less than we do was a way to live the Gospel.
“But I’ll say, I was also thirsty for adventure, for the chance to travel and see new worlds.”
Her service in Colombia provided her with a chance to be independent and creative. “As I was helping others, my own dreams got a lot bigger,” Orth said. She was only the third female writer at Newsweek magazine. Since 1988, she has been at Vanity Fair magazine, where she is a special correspondent.
Orth is the widow of the political journalist and Buffalo native Tim Russert, who was serving as Washington bureau chief of NBC News and moderator of “Meet the Press” at the time of his death in June 2008. She also is the mother of NBC News correspondent Luke Russert.
When she was growing up, the choices for women were very limited outside of marriage and motherhood, Orth said.
“Today, in contrast, girls are told over and over you can be anything you want to be. There are no limits but, of course, there still are,” she said.
“All over the world, in a truly sad and far disproportionate amount, women and children bear the brunt of poverty and suffering. Here, in Erie County, 53,000 children experience hunger or are at risk for hunger. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country is widening in an alarming fashion.”
Orth said the nation needs to address the cycle of poverty that often starts with out-of-wedlock births. “All too often, what that means is that these children will not be able to have a good education or be prepared for a skilled job. They are likely not to marry either and perpetuate the cycle of poverty,” she said.
“One way to achieve social justice, which truly recognizes the dignity of every human life, is to participate in your community, and if you don’t have the calling to run for office yourself, at least keep up with the news. Be aware. Be informed.”
Orth also participated in a panel discussion, which included five alumnae and a faculty member. Buffalo News Editor Margaret M. Sullivan, a Nardin graduate and member of its board of trustees, moderated the discussion.