The Houston Lesson

By Rich Harwood

This morning on my drive into work, I heard an NPR story about two individuals who decided to go to Houston with their boat to help rescue people from flooded homes. When asked why they were there, they simply answered: “We have an obligation to help.” This is true for all of us with respect to the tragedy in Houston. It also is the case for how we move out from our mess politically in the nation.

Chills went down my spine as I heard these individuals talk about their remarkable efforts. One is a former boat captain, and the other a medic. They said they had skills that could be of use and that they would stay as long as they were needed. 

Today, our politics are fractured and filled with acrimony. We are told incessantly by politicians, pollsters and pundits how divided we are from one another. Street fights, at times deadly, are breaking out over Confederate monuments. Riled Americans take up sides during protests and rallies. Our politics can feel tribal, visceral, filled with grievances.

And yet listen to these two men in Houston. They are but a couple of guys among thousands of Americans who have streamed into Texas from near and far to help out. They act in complementary ways to government agencies from all levels, various non-profits, faith groups and others. They often provide swifter and nimbler assistance than institutions and organizations. 

Collectively, these individual Americans along with institutions and groups are demonstrating once more what “shared responsibility” means—what it takes to make community a common enterprise. Different efforts all pulling in a common direction against a particular challenge. 

As my own work has evolved over the years, it is a renewed and updated notion of shared responsibility that I have come to believe will help the nation move out from division and acrimony. We must come together to build stronger communities and take greater control over our own lives and futures. So many of the challenges we face nowadays—including the opioid epidemic, children feeling abandoned, gun violence and others—demand this approach.  

The divisions in our land are real. We cannot sugarcoat them. Nor pretend they do not exist. We must face them straight up with a healthy dose of courage and humility.

Yet amid the dark tragic loss from this hurricane, comes some light of hope. There is a critical lesson for us all at this time of dispiriting political upheaval: Let us reclaim a sense of shared responsibility—and in doing so, restore our belief in one another and renew our can-do spirit.

If you wish to donate to the Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, please consider one of these funds:

Center for Disaster Philanthropy:

United Way National Recovery Fund: