We are better than this.
Like so many, I find it hard to watch the news channels, newspapers, blogs, and social media discussing and debating the events in Charlottesville and, in particular, the reactions of some of our country’s elected officials to them. And, like many, I am grappling with the words to describe what is in my soul right now. To say I’m disappointed, angry, incredulous – these words all seem like such weak tea. The truth is, many of us have harbored those feelings for a long time now – some for generations – and many of us are simply accustomed to feeling this way. What way? In a word: excluded. In another word: wounded. In another: leaderless.
In times of personal struggle, community strife, and national crisis, we count on leaders. However, we’ve begun to believe, through some odd national mental shift, that people in positions of power – achieved through election or notoriety or celebrity, and given access to our airwaves and inboxes – have some magical power to “lead” us out of angst and into unity, equality, righteousness, peace. In media coverage we hear nonsense like, “We elected our leaders, now we should allow them to lead us,” and “Where are our leaders?”, and on and on.
Here is the truth: We don’t always need elected officials to do the leading for us. We certainly expect them to have the capacity to remind us of the core truths and larger purposes that lie in our hearts, and that we all long for in our lives, knowingly or unknowingly. We hope that they can inspire us to remember those things, and it’s disappointing when they don’t. But we don’t need other people to lead for us, and we should stop gnashing our teeth about it. We are, ourselves, the leaders that we seek. Let me explain.
At soul-searching moments like these, I contemplate personal leadership – the courage to say out loud and act upon what is right in the midst of pressure to be silent, unattached, cautious, afraid; to minimize or deflect. That’s when I am reminded of real stories of leadership throughout American history.
The examples I remember are of everyday people, stepping up for a purpose beyond their own lives – beyond territory, commerce, creed, or color. I’m reminded of those storming the beaches of Normandy. Certainly, the battle was a strategy set in motion by those in power, but I think about those individuals who watched the beach approach and who moved their own bodies into the fray. I’m reminded of Ruby Bridges, who saw the crowds, heard the dogs, felt the spit, and yet persisted in her trek to the entrance of William Frantz Elementary. I’m reminded of the unarmed principal who stepped into the hallway to face the gunman and slow his advance. And from here on, I’ll be reminded of Heather Heyer, who got up on a Saturday morning and headed to Charlottesville to make her message known – that we are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Each of these examples, and countless others across the span of our nation’s history, are stories of personal leadership, the courage to stand for what is morally right despite the prospect of suffering, despite self-concern. The great myth of American history is that the brand of leadership our grandparents embodied as the “greatest generation” is a thing of the past. The true promise of America is that our greatest generation is before us, right now: It isn’t locked in some sepia-toned photograph of days gone by.
Freedom and equality aren’t for just a few of us; in America, they are the birthright of us all. That means you and I, especially in this moment, have the responsibility to take all the suffering endured in service of this higher purpose we call democracy, wrap it in our arms, and carry it over the goal line.
In the end, we all have our own personal Normandy, our own William Frantz Elementary school entrance: that moment where we see plainly what lies in store and yet are called to step forward anyway. Courage requires a test. The events of Charlottesville are one such test, and I’m encouraged despite the continuing fallout; I’m encouraged because so many Americans find the events themselves and the inadequate response of certain elected officials so deeply, jarringly, disturbing. That feeling means that purpose is in the well, and we need only call on our resolve to pull up the bucket.
Leadership isn’t the work of some elected official, and it isn’t the work of "others." It is your work, and it is our work together. The leaders we seek are within each of us. Now is the time that we are called to stand for what is right. The beach approaches: Let us be our own greatest generation. Let us step forward and lead.
Thank you for your time, consideration, courage, and persistence. I urge you to share the icon below as part of your own statements of leadership at this critical moment. Please also see GCN’s official statement of solidarity against racism.
President and CEO