What do you want America to look like? How do you want Americans to think and to act? What do you want to be your own legacy?
The 2016 US Presidential election, especially when considered alongside other global phenomena (such as those listed below), suggests we are living in remarkable times, times of great change, times of great challenge and opportunity:
- Political phenomena: the coming transition to millennial and “minority” voting power; the resurgence of Russia and Putin; Brexit; the rise of nationalism and right wing politics in Europe; and the emergence of extremist elected leaders in the Philippines and Turkey;
- Cultural phenomena: the demographic shifts underway in the world’s major economies; the growing global impact of Islam; the conflicts in and flood of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa;
- Technological phenomena: the rise of white collar war (drones, etc.); the power of social media; humankind’s ability to change our environment;
- Environmental phenomena: species extinction; ocean acidification; climate change; population growth.
Such times are a tipping points. Small details in what happens in the coming years could have profound impacts on the future of our species, our society and culture, and our planet. By corollary, what each of us does, how each of us spends our time, has the potential for great impact.
So what do you want your role to be? It is more important now than ever that you sit back and reflect; that you decide where your energy is best placed; and that you develop an executable plan to engage, rather than carry a bag of wishes. In this article we reflect on some of the elements and approaches you might consider and offer a couple of suggestions of how you might most effectively move forward.
Reflections on Identity Politics and FDR’s Freedoms
A lot of the post-election analysis, particularly that of the losing Clinton team, has focused on a campaign which targeted identity groups – millennial, black, Latino, women, LGBTQ, etc. – and on the geographical concentration and campaigning decisions made in the context of our electoral college system of voting. One argument in the New York Times oped last week, The End of Identity Liberalism, suggested that we need to move on from that approach. The piece concluded with the following passage:
Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters — men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos. We began by singing the national anthem, and then sat down to listen to a recording of Roosevelt’s speech. As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear — freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for “everyone in the world” — I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.
I would suggest that reflecting on FDR’s four freedoms might be a good method for grounding yourself in how and where you want to get engaged.
Be Positive and Proactive
You may be angry or thrilled about the election of Donald Trump, but to demonstrate either for him (as one recent Delta traveler did in an especially antagonistic manner – a passenger as a consequence now banned from traveling with the airline!) or against (there have been many “anti-Trump” protests, some of which have become violent) is to dilute your efforts and possible impact. The election is over and the outcome is set. Demonstrations of this kind mostly create division and set up barriers to getting things done.
Rather it’s time to look more specifically at the areas you care about and to focus, on issues and policies around which you can actively engage
Donald Trump’s cabinet selections, for example, may lead you to specific fears about a Muslim registry, about the future of our schools, about erosion of environmental protections, or about nepotism in Washington. Conversely you might see in the movement he has started, great opportunities you want to advance: these may be business-oriented, infrastructure-related, or to do with the reform and reconstruction of American politics or our parties and the party system. Any of these avenues offers fertile ground for the development of a specific and targeted agenda. A positive and proactive plan can be created, and if you act on this you are both more likely to have an impact, and also more likely to feel positive about your own life.
Decide What do You Care About And Focus Your Energy
The last paragraph above offers a list of broad topics around which you may feel energized. There are other large ones, too: for example our society has ongoing challenges of regulation, centralization of power in DC (aka “too much government”), of persistent and institutional racism, of opportunity for the millennial generation; there is massive food insecurity in the USA while 40% of our food ends up in landfills; there are wars going on around the globe and millions of refugees looking for somewhere to go. The list of challenges is long. Similarly you can look at this from the standpoint of great opportunities about which you may feel passionate: the potential of elearning; the use of technology in medicine.
There are also a lot of less popular and less discussed issues which may be important to you: specific diseases, particularly those which have directly impacted your family; neighborhood concerns about crime, or business opportunities, or education; local communities or community charities.
The point here is not to tell you where to get involved, but rather to encourage you to look at the world in which you live from the standpoint of getting involved, and inviting you to focus and target your thinking and your actions. You can’t do everything: if you try to address all the world’s problems or opportunities, you will either spread yourself too thin, or more likely reduce yourself to an armchair critic. Be specific. Think about something you care about and commit to get involved.
This is where the rubber meets the road: get involved. If you sit on the sidelines and talk about what our politicians are doing wrong, you will feel disconnected, unempowered and ineffective. You will feel the issues of the world and of your society as existing outside you. As a result your world will be smaller than it otherwise might, and you will miss out on the great joy and pleasure that comes from getting directly involved in making a difference in the world.
This is not to say that getting involved will all be stories of wonder and joy: it won’t be. There will be hard work and frustrations, but there will also be camaraderie, friendship, and success. The happiest people I know are those who have found a cause in which they believe, and who are fully committed to it. For some this is a specific organization that is working to relieve food insecurity in metro Atlanta (Second Helpings Atlanta); for others it is a free clinic offering services to the uninsured, and particularly immigrants (Clarkston Community Health Center); and for others it is the business they founded or the business area for which they are responsible, in an industry or product which they see as really important in the world. At one level the “what” isn’t what matters: it’s that you feel it is important, that you care about and are energized by it, and that you get directly involved. And you can get involved at any level, as an occasional, low-engagement volunteer, or as an employee or fulltime volunteer.
Thoughts on How To Get Involved
In our hearts most of us know the truth of what has just been said: there are things you care about, and about which you want to make a difference. But there are barriers (in sales-speak, “objections”) to getting involved, and it just doesn’t happen. Here are a few such, along with some thoughts on how you might look at them differently and maybe start to overcome them:
- Nothing I can do will make a difference: you can make all the difference in the world if you approach it one step at a time, one person at a time. Focusing on accomplishing a desired long-term outcome can be overwhelming, but if you look underneath it at smaller, short term goals, it is more realistic and has the opportunity to provide regular positive feedback;
- I don’t know where to start: rest assured you are not the only person who cares about this issue. Others have been here before, and there are people who are actively engaged. Look for them and the organizations in which they work. One of the wonderful things about the internet and our modern communications fabric is how easy it is to find such people and groups and to start a conversation;
- It will take too much time: For the most part you can decide how much time you have to spend on a particular issue and manage your time commitment to that. So don’t start by feeling it’s too much; first identify what you want to get involved with, and look for others working on it, and then have a conversation. If you are clear on the limits to your engagement, you will almost certainly find they can be accommodated;
- I don’t have time right now: If not now then when? Even if you just spend an hour or two a month, try getting involved with people on an issue that matters to you and make a commitment to continue for a while, and see how it makes you feel;
- It will be heartbreaking: having family or pets is also heartbreaking: loved ones die. But we do it because the joy it brings makes the experiences worthwhile. So it is with anything. Moments of heartbreak will naturally happen in places where we care deeply, but so will moments of profound joy and satisfaction. Taking on something that has meaning for you is a gateway to truly living, and truly living is a place where emotions and experiences are all richer and deeper;
- I don’t like politics: this is like saying you don’t like eating or sleeping: politics is the very nature of human interaction. You are involved in politics every time you engage in a meeting at work, or in the social agendas of your family and your children. Politics is part of the fabric of your life, and it has soft edges. You might not want to jump right into fray of local elected officials, but you can take small steps out of your comfort zone.
There are a lot more objections, but you get the point: the excuses we create are just that: excuses. And whether we like it or not, we are all members of our society and will have a greater sense of purpose and belonging if we are willing to accept that and behave accordingly.
A Story of Responding Locally and Small
I recently heard a story which gives a great example of a small action that is a very positive and effective response to something about which an individual cares. The specifics are around the fear that a Muslim registry might be implemented, but the story and response, which sounds incredibly creative but actually draws very simply from an engaged and loving approach to relationships, could be tailored to many, many situations.
The story-teller voted for Hillary Clinton and her father for Donald Trump. In a family conversation after the election, she said to her Dad that she found some of the things Trump committed to do to be quite upsetting. Her Dad said that Trump didn’t mean all of those things. So the story-teller said, “If he implements a Muslim registry, I plan to stand in line and register with all my Muslim brothers and sisters. Will you stand in line with me?”. Her father said, “Yes.”
This response is beautiful. It is a simple, loving and caring conversation that takes a complex and difficult issue and makes it personal, then looks for common ground and personal connection. Specifically it looks for connection around a commitment to engage not just in action, but in shared action. In setting up shared action it creates accountability and the opportunity for future connection and learning. And it is a small and fundamentally doable action, no more difficult than showing up to vote.
So here are a few takeaways:
- Reflect and focus on the things you care about and make a commitment you will get involved;
- Look for others working in these areas and take the first step;
- Think local and small;
- Try to center what you do on relationship.