A straight line connects Asuncion Perez, suffragette and the first woman to head the Bureau of Public Welfare (in 1941), to Corazon Juliano-Soliman, who became Secretary of Social Welfare and Development (for the first time in 2001). Within that long line, Dinky herself inhabited and represented the segment that was molded by its fight against the dictatorship, and its efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive society. That line sees no contradiction, and indeed, considers it a matter of civic duty to not just organize for civic engagement, but also to accept government appointment when the opportunity presents itself, as a matter of civic obligation. It is one that has become increasingly tenuous over time.
The tenuousness was derived from many of the decisions and political choices people in leadership roles like Dinky did in the first decade of this century. The first (partial) repudiation of the Edsa consensus, and the first (partial) step in the Marcos rehabilitation and restoration program, was the election of Joseph Estrada. To those danger signs accompanying his election was added government’s turning into a five-alarm fire because of the mismanagement under Estrada’s Midnight Cabinet. It was to be expected that civil society would not only be antagonized, but would also mobilize in response to such a state of affairs. What was not inevitable was for its leading lights to then leave civil society and accept positions in government itself.
It was, as some had warned before it happened, a difficult relationship to maintain. Civil society demanded accountability through the arrest of the ousted Estrada. His arrest triggered an urban insurrection that civil society proved powerless to prevent: Only the armed forces could do it. Things were fractured even further when people like Dinky, a little later down the line, drew a line which they wouldn’t cross, while others from civil society happily continued their affiliation whatever the exposé. To the list of bruised and compromised institutions, from the Supreme Court to the presidency to Congress, tainted by our Jekyll-and-Hyde Edsas (Dos and Tres), an enfeebled and fragmented civil society was added.
Redemption, or at least a second chance, was given Dinky when she served a full presidential term under the second Aquino in the portfolio she’d resigned from under the second Macapagal. Here, she was given the chance to radically expand the greatest experiment in moving citizens out of poverty, the Conditional Cash Transfer program or CCT. It was one of the most resented of the efforts of an administration engaged in breathtakingly bold initiatives (K-to-12 was the second; the third was the Reproductive Health Act). The numbers were staggering, but left the public that benefited from them unconvinced.
Dinky did all this because, as more than one commentator on our scary global present has observed, she belonged to a generation now departing the scene. What sets apart the generations of the movements of the ’60s, ’70s, and even ’80s from those of today is that willingness to subsume ego and engage in often unheralded work.
One of Dinky’s regular tasks was to supervise the provision of assistance to those affected by natural disasters. The hallmark of the government’s response in those days and earlier ones was the ritual call for volunteers to go to the DSWD warehouse and help pack relief goods. It took Dinky to work with the United Nations to finally acquire the machinery to automate the production of family packs—the boxes of relief goods—which finally made the call for volunteers obsolete. To my mind, it’s one of the best yet unheralded examples of how she improved things.
“We are all students of power,” a veteran official once told me, and he was right. We are also, each of us, I believe, students of how those around us behave around power. Dinky advised—insisted—that those serving in government take their turn going to the communities that had the least but had the most to teach those suddenly glittering with titles and perks due to holding positions.
Dinky was small in size but a giantess in terms of gleeful get-it-done integrity. She demonstrated two of the most difficult things for Filipinos in leadership positions to accomplish: being willing to give up power, and not using that power for self-serving ends. In this, she was true to the codes of civil society, with its focus, when at its best, on transparency and accountability to stakeholders and allies. She ended her life not with material wealth, but rather with that rare thing, the expressed appreciation and respect of even those who held divergent views. A passing, sad to say, many of her most passionate critics will never earn.
Corazon Juliano-Soliman, Jan. 27, 1953-Sept. 19, 2021.