To thousands of Rotarians who make their Rotary pilgrimage to Evanston to the Rotary International headquarters in the US, there are a few defining moments, and photo opportunities. One is the PolioPlus statue right outside the entrance; the other is Paul Harris stretching out his hand for anybody who wants to shake it. The biggest privilege of course is to visit the RI President’s office and take a picture with him. I ask K R Ravindran if Rotarians have to make previous appointments to do so. “Of course not; I tell all Rotarians who want to visit my office or take pictures that this is your office; I am its occupant only for a year,” he says.
At the lobby level of the One Rotary Centre, there is the famous Room 711, where in 1905 the first Rotary meeting was held. This room was actually in the Unity Building in downtown Chicago, and for Rotary’s 75th anniversary Convention in 1980, RC Chicago members rented and decorated the room. In 1983 a group of Rotarians formed the Paul Harris 711 Club to maintain the room. In 1989 when the Unity Building
was being demolished, it was dismantled and temporarily reconstructed; it finally found its present and permanent home in 1992.
The 18th floor of the building which houses all the important offices is the most impressive. The gleaming wood- panelled corridors are adorned with many interesting Rotary memorabilia such as the commemorative stamps brought out by several countries over the decades to honour the work of Rotary, including one by India in 1987 to recognise polio immunisation work. Along one corridor is the impressive and colourful line-up of the flags of member countries.
Displayed opposite the Boardroom is a huge bell with an engraved image of Paul Harris, gifted by RC Agnone, Italy. It was made by one of the oldest bell-making foundries — Campane Marinelli in Agnone — which has made many famous bells, including one for the UN building in New York.
It is an interesting place to browse … there are several tastefully done panels with trophies and important photographs including those of RI Boards over the years. The black and white pictures speak eloquently about a vintage era. You find here how during World War II, Rotary had looked for ways to create a stable and peaceful world. The Rotarian magazine had then published a bunch of essays by writers, politicians and others on the challenges people faced in daily living.
It was great to catch up with the RI Communications team — Michele Moiron, Donna Cotter and John Rezek, Editor of The Rotarian. From interactions with the latter I come away wiser on how to handle pressure and demand for space from Rotarians and Rotary Clubs, and marvel at how unfazed he is and how coolly he handles such pressure!
A poignant moment I experienced was when I entered the washroom area on the ground floor only to be startled by toilet cubicle doors donning pictures of ramshackle, makeshift toilets across the developing world. What grabbed my attention was one that said: “Yamuna River Bank, India,” and had the visual of a not-too-clean Indian toilet embedded on the floor and covered on three sides by a tattered blanket propped up on three sticks. Not the proudest of moments for an Indian, I assure you, but WinS (WASH in Schools) is working on it on a war footing. The other doors had images of a mud and thatch tiny structure from Gondola District, Mozambique, a bamboo rods and asbestos contraption from Sumpango, Guatemala, yet another dirty one from our very own Yamuna Bank, and so on.
As you open the door to use the facility, you can breathe again … to find a spanking clean typical American toilet. And the inside door has a clear message staring you in the face and challenging your conscience. It says “A clean, safe bathroom. Aren’t you relieved? Not everyone is so lucky. In fact 2.5 billion people without access to toilets or latrines relieve themselves outdoors, spreading diseases that kill as many as 2,000 children every day.”
It goes on to add how adequate sanitation could save not only those lives and health costs by $260 a year, and how Rotary is working towards this goal!
Joint Board-TRF meet
But I did not visit Evanston to write about toilets; I went there with special permission from Ravindran and his team to witness a part of the proceedings on the quarterly RI Board meet and a joint Board-TRF meet.
On the agenda of the joint meet was a study done on RI staff, their interface with volunteers (Rotarians), and among other things, concern was expressed about the not-too-polite language used by Rotarians in their interactions with the RI staff. There are about 500 people working at the One Rotary Centre, the RI Headquarters, which goes all the way up to the 18th floor, where the offices of the seniormost RI leaders such as the RI President, President-elect, TRF Chair and General Secretary John Hewko, and the Boardroom are located. Six floors of this building are rented out and as Ravindran said later in an interview, “We have the best staff in the world.”
The joint meet, where Ravindran and TRF Trustee Chair Ray Klinginsmith presided, sought views from both the Board members and Trustees on the feasibility of at least a half-yearly joint meet between the Board and TRF to develop better synergy and co-operation. There was a general consensus on the desirability of such joint meetings.
Later, after the Board members had moved to the 18th floor after President Ravindran decisively declared a “tea break” (he is after all in the tea packaging business!), the Trustees continued their meet. TRF Chair Klinginsmith presided and Chair-elect Kalyan Banerjee was present, with his interventions getting due attention.
Need for change
There was considerable wisdom, mature thoughts, introspection and candid expression of opinions. Many of the members reiterated a strong desire for the need to change, and change soon. One of the Trustees said he was from the print industry and had seen first-hand how quickly change had engulfed his industry. Things were changing so fast in the print industry that he was afraid it might not even exist 20 to 25 years hence. “A lot of things are changing out there … the cell phones are controlling our lives … and the outside world is not going to wait for us.”
Many of the Trustees agreed that Rotary would have to respond to the “changing world and the demands from the younger generation in a more active manner. If we don’t change, we will become extinct.”
India deserves better representation on RI Board
This Board meeting was important in many ways, says RID Manoj Desai, who was in Evanston to attend it. For the first time there was a two-day joint session of the Board and TRF. “Then the Council on Legislation, which you can say is the Parliament of Rotary that meets once in three years, is due in April and will be attended by 535 DGs from all over the world.”
He says for the first two days a lot of brainstorming was done on the strategic plan of Rotary and Vision 2020. “Ultimately any organisation needs a long term plan to decide where it wants to be five years down the line.”
Desai adds that many other issues were discussed by the Board, such as problems in some Rotary districts, and decisions on various issues were taken. “An important part of this meeting was that President Ravindran has introduced for the first time electronic voting. That takes away undue influence of the President or anybody else. You can look at me and smile but you can’t vote for me or change my decision!”
A key point this time was both the Board and TRF accepting the need for strategic planning. “We decided that it is okay to have a difference of opinion but it is important to look at the long term future of Rotary.” Towards this goal he has already started his think-tank meets in India and completed two already. “I thought India, which has the second highest membership in the Rotary world — last year was a record-breaking year — should be a model, and so I started these meetings which are attended by RCs, RRFCs, RPICs, etc.”
On who was responsible for Rotary’s growth in India both in membership and TRF contributions, Desai says, “It is team work, and people who work at the field level. No single person can take credit.”
On how fair it was for India and the South Asia region to have only one RI Director despite crossing the 150,000 mark on membership, he said, “It is certainly not fair, our representation on the RI Board is not proportionate to our membership. At the time of re-zoning I will make a strong and effective presentation.”
But, he added, partly it was our own fault “that we do not want to divide the districts; even with 7,000 members, we want to have the district intact.” While the criteria at the lower level was 1,100 members and 35 clubs, there was no upper limit. “But one should be set, and we should start bifurcations. The vision of our senior leaders both Rajaji (PRIP Rajendra K Saboo) and (PRIP) Kalyan Banerjee is to go upto 50 districts so that we can have 3–4 Directors, and then our voice will be heard.”
Voices and Opinions
- We should meet at least twice a year; the more we meet the better it is for team building.
- We can’t have different positions between the Board and TRF. We have to work to come closer; at times we might disagree but it is healthy to disagree.
- There were times the two would not even talk to each other. So we’ve come a long way towards One Rotary!
- After all TRF is a subsidiary of RI, so it won’t take dramatically different positions. Only the priorities might differ.
- Advocacy and debate are good, and so is some disrespect.
But overall, the mood was positive and great optimism was expressed for Rotary’s future. But there were voices of caution too … it was agreed that each member had a different way of dealing with issues and tackling problems, and though change was necessary, it should not be brought in like a steam roller … “Yes, we have to be responsive to change, but should be careful not to move too quickly. Balance is necessary,” was one voice.
The sessions were packed with voicing of ideas, endorsements as well as dissent and disagreements, but the latter were conveyed sans rancour or aggression. The Board meeting session that I attended a day later held a discussion on whether RI Conventions could be held once in seven years in countries that didn’t have all the critical criteria presently necessary for hosting a Rotary Convention.
The diversity of opinions, the respect with which they were heard, the way both Ravindran and Klinginsmith listened attentively to each member, all the time keeping a close watch on raised hands and went around the room giving everybody a chance to speak, were all impressive. One got a sense of a true democratic spirit reigning over these meetings. At the coffee and lunch breaks there was an easy camaraderie, much mirth and humour, with Ravindran pulling quite a few legs.
What came through strongly was the camaraderie the RI President shares with his successors as well as the TRF Chair. Quite often, I saw him engaged in conversations with President Elect John Germ and President Nominee Ian Riseley. An invaluable lesson for DGs and club Presidents across the world to work together in a spirit of consultation, camaraderie and collaboration rather than rivalry, animosity or one upmanship. Other lessons for us Indians; I saw Ravindran carrying his laundry back home, and Klinginsmith taking out the trash can!
At the annual staff reception hosted at Hotel Hilton Garden Inn, all the senior leaders, including TRF Trustees and Directors were seen mingling with the staff, sharing jokes and thanking them for the relentless work they do for RI.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat