By Teva Sienicki, Livingston Fellow Class of 2015
As part of my Livingston Fellowship activities, I took a trip to our nation’s capital to explore the policy and advocacy landscape around poverty and hunger. These days D.C. feels like a beaten city. In literally all my meetings- from those with activists on the left, and to those with free-market-oriented philanthropists on the right, a pervasive sense of diminished possibility infused every conversation. If D.C. were a single person looking to date, they’d be the one giving off that depressed and lonely vibe that no one asks out. I felt like I was giving a pep talk on repeat. I became a cheerleader for optimism. It made me feel depressed, and then angry.
During my time, I met with folks from RESULTS, the Institute for Policy Studies, The Poor Peoples Campaign, and the Philanthropy Round Table. The first three spent their time with me venting about the gridlock in Congress, the lack of focus and predictability from the White House, and the repeated leadership shake-ups in various federal offices. They focused singularly on government solutions, and more narrowly on legislative agendas, lobbying, and what they thought they could get done (or not) in the current session. When I asked what opportunities each person and their organizations saw, or where they were aiming long term, they were stumped. Each indicated that they couldn’t think about that; it felt impractical or unreasonable. They could only think about surviving the current environment.
By contrast, the Poor People’s Campaign seeks to revitalize a movement on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s initial campaign. Unfortunately, they also seem to operate from a place of scarcity, as many grassroots efforts, and lack capacity, a communications team, and organization. It took months of outreach and nearly a dozen emails to even get a response and land a meeting at all. When I did, it was with their lead researcher and policy analyst, rather than anyone from the campaign itself or its leadership.
All this frustrates me in light of our potential, if we take the long view. Our culture generally these days, and D.C. most acutely, suffers from partisan gridlock, binary thinking, and a short term 18-month election cycle brain squeeze. Recently, I read an article on China’s increasing presence, and influence in Latin America, and then this piece about their approach to Africa. And then there is this long form piece, among many, which explores their long-term plans for space and extra-terrestrial contact. Now, I’m not arguing we adopt a Chinese world view whole hog, but their long view struck me through as a thread. They don’t get trapped in 18-month election cycles, quarterly profit cycles, or 24-hour news cycles. They think about where they want to be in decades, in centuries, and move with deliberation in that direction.
The great leaders of our past, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lincoln also held and offered a vision of a time beyond their own. They dreamt of and worked for a better day. When we think about what is possible in this way, we see ebbs and flows and pendulum swings in the context of history and plot for the future accordingly. We know that every boom in our economy is followed by a bust; every swing of the pendulum toward populism and nationalism is followed by a swing back toward progress (and that the arc bends to justice). We can invest our time and energy tactically in each of these moments to bend the arc evermore.
When passing time between meetings with lobbyists, advocates, and policy wonks bogged down in the day-to-day in D.C., one visits monuments and museums that provide excellent content for more expansive thinking. I brought my family along to D.C., and so in addition to the formal meetings, I visited the African American History Museum, the National Portrait Gallery (where a powerful art exhibit from artists of color entitled Struggle and Persistence moved each of us), The Library of Congress, the Mall, and the Smithsonian with them. These visits, and two historic and cultural sites in Baltimore, provided more food for thought and inspiration than all the meetings combined.
In particular, the African American History Museum offers a riveting, gripping narrative of our history that shook me into utter grief and outrage. Security literally kicked us out at the closing-time and I found myself unable to converse for the remainder of the evening as I processed what I’d experienced inside. Despite all the reading and training and years of work to become a better ally for racial justice, I left humbled by how much I still need to learn. I redoubled my commitment to racial justice work and allyship. While the rest of my time in D.C. provided hit or miss opportunities for insight, everyone should experience this museum.
My oldest son requested that we return to the Lincoln Memorial on our final night in D.C. To mark his 11th birthday, he wished to eat his dessert on the steps, in the halo of relevance and hope that this monument invokes. Re-reading the words of a great leader during our nation’s most divisive time fortified us. Time immersed in our collective history touched me and drew me to reflect about our moment. In the context of everything we wrestle with as a country, a visceral compulsion to do more consumes me. As I journeyed from despair to fury to hope in under a week, so too can we as a nation and a people. As leaders, it is our job to see and honor the full story and potential of our humanity; to walk with our community in the struggle, and to midwife ever a genuine hope for justice.