Yesterday, the headline of USA Today’s top story read, “Katrina inspires record charity.” That’s great – but as I sit in Newark, NJ, I know it’s not enough. We are a society that is awfully good at charity, but not nearly good enough at change. I have long believed that Americans are a generous and compassionate lot. Our response to 9/11 was heart-warming. Now, after the Asian Tsunami and then Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, as well as other tragedies, we have demonstrated that we will step forward and provide relief to people in acute need.
Indeed, Americans are apt to respond when they see a concrete problem, when there is something they can do, and when they believe the problem is relevant to their lives.
But I have a concern – a burning one. Just last night I did an event here in Newark, and just last week I was in the Twin Cities. No matter where I go, I hear people lament that we cannot generate meaningful change in our communities.
Too many substandard public schools still fail our children; too many people remain in poverty; too many communities are unable to figure out how to mange their burgeoning growth. New Orleans is fast becoming the symbol of our inability to come together and address our common concerns. We can do better – in the Gulf Coast and throughout the nation.
But to do better will require that we not confuse charity with change. Again, charity is both necessary and good. But we must see that in order to generate change we need to build the capacity of our communities to bring people together, focus on strategic levers for change, and marshal our collective will and resources. And we must be able to do this work over time, not just episodically.
You see, too often charity asks us simply to write to check or to enter the public square for just a moment in time. Change requires that we bring our full selves to the public square and that we give the challenge at hand our full attention; that we stay committed even as the work becomes difficult; that we work together. Even if we are not on the front line of change, we must be willing to face the challenges at hand, to support those who are at work, and to think about the public good and not just our own good.
In too many communities that I visit, there is thin capacity for change among non-profits, faith-based groups, and other organizations; there are too few leaders whom people trust and who will work together; there are norms of acrimony and divisiveness that pull people down and make them stay home rather than engage; there are narratives that suggest that “change can’t happen here” and thus oppress people’s sense of hope.
No doubt, charity can help us see a new path for our work together; but, alone, it will not enable us to go down that path. For that, we will need to develop the capacity required for change and tap the courage required to engage in such work.
Everywhere I go, people are proud of our collective charity; now, they want us to focus on change.