Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan was the keynote speaker at the seventh annual Simon Benson Awards dinner Wednesday night. At the gala, which honored local philanthropists, the queen spoke on the virtues of altruism, poverty as the root of war and terrorism and her life’s goals of spreading peace and understanding.
The dinner, Portland State’s signature fundraising event, took place in the lavishly decorated Convention Center with over 800 people in attendance. Most paid $250 for a plate while others, like scholarship recipients or invited alumni, came as guests. The event was expected to raise over $100,000.
The stage, bathed in blue and gold light, stood at the front of the hall where all eyes turned when the queen took the stage.
“From strengthening families with children to supporting the arts to providing health care for low-income people, the work of this community has set an impressive example for the rest of the world,” she said during her speech honoring this year’s awards recipients.
The awards went to two couples: Marta and Ken Thrasher, and Barbara and A. Gary Ames. Both have given generously to Portland State.
Ken is co-chair of PSU’s “Building Our Future” campaign and former CEO of Fred Meyer. Marta sits on PSU advisory boards for the Graduate School of Education, Graduate School of Social Work and Food Industry Leadership Center. Aside from PSU, they have raised money for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Friends of the Children and the Portland Art Museum.
“A great city really has to have a great university, and that’s what PSU is all about,” Ken Thrasher said when accepting their award.
Unlike the Thrashers, the Ames are both alumni of Portland State. They focus their gifts in the School of Business and the Graduate school of Education. Almost 50 students in these schools have received scholarships because of their contributions.
Roland Moore, a teacher from Ghana, received an Ames scholarship for his graduate studies in the school of education. He said he wasn’t sure if he would have been able to attend PSU if it wasn’t for their aid. “It came at a very good time.”
“The whole purpose of this event is philanthropy,” said President Bernstine before the dinner started. “And that resonated with [the queen].”
Queen Noor became the queen of Jordan in 1978 when she married then-King Hussein, the father of the current King. Since then, she has spent her energy working for human rights, women and children’s welfare, environmental conservation, humanitarian relief work and many more things. She is involved in international organizations, including the United Nations, and tours the world in support of philanthropy, justice and conflict resolution.
“What is so heartening to me, as I consider the remarkable philanthropy we have seen,” she said, “is that a good portion of the funds raised here in the United States are going to help Muslims in Asia and around the world, without a second thought. Even though, if you were going to ask those same Americans what they thought about Islam or the Muslim world, generally, you might get a response that was a good deal less charitable.”
She spoke on the inherent human desire to help one another and how it shows itself most during times of tragedy. She said she believes that it should not take a tragedy to bridge the gap between people. People need to take a “leap of faith” and reach out to others all over the world.
To her, most philanthropists can trace their altruism back to a “unifying moment when their social conscience was first awakened.”
“For me it was the civil rights movement in the United States,” she said. “Like so many of my generation, I was a student activist who marched with Martin Luther King and protested the Vietnam War.”
She said she learned three guiding lessons from Dr. King and the civil rights movement that, in her opinion, could help change the world.
The first is “that true peace will never be won at the end of the gun.” The queen said worldwide defense spending currently stands at over $1 trillion, while humanitarian aid sits at $60 billion. To her, the disparity in these numbers is inhumane and irresponsible.
The second lesson she learned is the belief that there is more that unites than divides humankind. Those things are charity, equity, justice, empathy and accountability.
The third lesson is that an individual has more power to change the world than is commonly believed. The queen was then more specific, identifying the root cause of terrorism as poverty.
Revising a famous saying by Dr. King about justice and injustice, the queen said she has come to believe that “poverty anywhere is a threat to security everywhere.”
She told of the suffering she witnessed in the Middle East when she first went there as a young woman and how surprised she was at how so many people didn’t seem to care about it. Never, she said, has she seen such intense suffering and oppression than in the Middle East. “People who feel they have nothing left to lose can resort to desperate acts.”
The solution, according to the queen, is complex though it does not lie in defense spending. The silver bullet for poverty, and therefore terrorism and war, is a matter of human rights.
“In my experience, the empowerment of women is the essential key in overcoming poverty,” she said. When women are given money, she continued, they most often invest in their family and community. This in turn cycles wealth and prosperity back into that community, meeting needs. “In my experience, when people have what they need they reject violence and injustice, in all forms.”
The queen explained how this is a global problem and that everyone is affected by it.
“No country can rely on walls and fences, military might, oceans, or the barrier of distance to keep at bay desperate immigrants, refugees, terrorists, disease, pollution or global warming,” she said.
The Simon Benson Awards dinners have had many important speakers in its seven years, from Colin Powell and Bob Dole to Madeleine Albright and Walter Cronkite. The queen is just the latest to help honor the philanthropists that help Portland State.
Portland State under President Bernstine has turned to fundraising as a way to support the school. Decisions in the Oregon state legislature, which used outdated enrollment figures when distributing state funds, has made PSU one of the most poorly funded schools in the nation. The awards dinners started during Bernstine’s administration, as did the “Building Our Future” campaign.
The campaign set a goal of raising $100 million by June 30 of this year. At the end of February, it had already raised over $104 million and is “still going strong,” according to Bernstine. Administration officials said the campaign would continue, despite reaching its goal, until its appointed end date.
Alan Johnson, regional president of Wells Fargo, was in attendance at the dinner. Wells Fargo, which donates over $40,000 a year to PSU, was a presenting sponsor of the dinner.
“Without higher education of quality, a community can’t succeed,” he said.