As I travel the country talking about Hope Unraveled and the conditions of American public life and politics, inevitably someone asks, “It’s all so overwhelming, what could I ever do to make a difference?” The negative conditions we face, and the sheer magnitude of the challenge, can be overwhelming. I remember a woman from Richmond, VA., one of the people I interviewed for the book in 1998, turning to me and saying, “If you look at the whole picture of everything that is wrong, it is so overwhelming you just retreat back.” Many people share her feelings and sense of frustration.
But my response to the question about what each of us can do is this: none of us alone can “solve” the negative conditions in public life and politics; there is too much work to be done. But each us can do our part. And it is only through our collective actions that change will emerge. For different people, such actions will take different forms. For instance:
- Foundation officers and heads of non-profit groups can conduct their work in ways that both address core social needs and build community at the same time. This will require moving away from “mechanistic responses” and engaging in a new level of being “ruthlessly strategic” and spreading a sense of hope (This was the subject of the previous entry).
- Private sector leaders can engage in their development work and community leadership in ways that reflect the values and aspirations of their communities – to view their work as part of the community rather separate from the community.
- Journalists can more accurately reflect the realities of people’s lives and move away from sensationalism, hype, and conflict-driven stories.
- Each of us as individuals can think about our relationship to our local schools, to children, and to our neighbors. There are small everyday actions we can take to reweave the fabric of our communities – and to be citizens again, not just consumers.
During a discussion last night here in Las Vegas, one person asked me if I thought such change could ever come about. I do. If you look back over the course of American history, moments of great change were always preceded by a collection of smaller actions that set the conditions – the right environment – to galvanize larger change. I believe, for instance, the reason that our pledges for change after 9/11 did not stick was that we did have enough of a foundation upon which to build a more robust, vibrant public life and politics. We fell back into our old, prevailing habits.
Each of us can help to set the new conditions we so desperately need and want through out daily words and actions. No one will swoop down upon public life and politics like a knight on a white horse to “save” us. We must do the work, each of us, and the time is now to move ahead.