Amid our shock and revulsion, we must summon the courage—even optimism—to do what we can to preserve American democracy
Racial Justice and Equity

Amid our shock and revulsion, we must summon the courage—even optimism—to do what we can to preserve American democracy

Insurrection in the capitol.

Earlier today, I met with the senior leadership and staff of Lumina Foundation. I had intended to talk about the work ahead and my renewed sense of optimism and resolve after a restful, family-centered holiday season. While I still do feel that way because of my belief in the justice of our mission of helping to foster a better-educated country, we are at an inflection point for democracy unlike any in our lifetimes.

The events of the last 24 to 36 hours have so many implications and cut across so many areas. Personally, I’ve felt a complex combination of emotions from what we all saw unfold. Anger. Fear. Disbelief. Pain. Injury. And, frankly, I was feeling overwhelmed thinking about my own family trajectory—past, present, and future. I mentioned on Twitter last night that for the first time since my father—a World War II vet who was held prisoner for 19 months—passed away in 2015, I can honestly say that I’m at peace with the fact that he’s no longer here. I don’t think he could have endured this moment.

Since I’ve been at Lumina, I’ve kept two things on my desk that are important to me. One is a 100-year-old copy of the complete works of Shakespeare. The other is a tattered photocopy of the journal that my dad kept when he was in captivity for 19 months. He was a guy who dropped out of high school during the Great Depression to help his younger siblings and illiterate parents stay alive by working as a musician. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, he had a lot to enter in his journal. They were being kept in reasonably good conditions, with access to sanitation, food, and a radio—and he liked to stay on top of what was happening. In his journal, he wrote: “I got up this morning and turned the radio on …. the big awaited “invasion” of which the whole world has been waiting for is here … Paratroopers landed in Northern France this morning … it must be very enormous. I’d give anything to be there right now.” So, my 21-year-old, relatively unschooled dad understood what was at stake. And he wanted more than anything else to do his part for democratic renewal and liberation. He was willing to put himself back in harm’s way after nearly dying when his plane was shot down. That resolve, that deep commitment to liberty, that’s what I’m focused on. That’s what I’ll keep fighting for.

As someone who studied politics and follows it closely, I’ve always understood intellectually how fragile our institutions and systems really are. As a long-time participant in D.C. policy contests, I’ve come to appreciate how things really get done and to recognize how the goodwill of public officials and others in public service has been critical to our success as a nation. And as someone who has spent a good deal of time in my life in nations where rule of law is not respected and adhered to, I’ve seen what happens when institutions fail because the people entrusted with upholding those institutions are corrupted by power, resources, and fame.

The entire day’s activities at the Capitol were a disgrace, an assault on our nation’s values, its institutions, and the very fabric of our democracy. That assault took place not only by the actions of a violent mob of terrorists—Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, modern-day Nazis—but by the actions of those we’ve elected to represent our shared interests as a nation. And I worry that Donald Trump’s authoritarian, late-night failure to accept reality puts us at greater near- and long-term risk as a country.

What we collectively witnessed represents a milestone—and maybe not the last—in the failure of institutions at all levels. It certainly represents the failure of our political system, which elevated an authoritarian leader, gave him cover, and continues to protect him and his belief system in a bid to support the craven, immoral ambitions of people who seek personal gain from this attempt to wreck our democracy—and who use the instruments of government to lie with impunity, attack peaceful protesters with Black skin, treat violent insurrectionists with kid gloves, and denigrate a free and fair press.

It represents the failure of the institution of law enforcement, which permitted people who were armed, hanging nooses on the Capitol grounds, and wearing nauseating t-shirts that said things like “Camp Auschwitz,” unfettered access to the sacred grounds of our most cherished democratic institution.

It represents the failure of social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter that have permitted and encouraged the distribution of radical ideology and hate in pursuit of profit, and of a Congress unwilling to impede them.

It represents the failure of news organizations, which continue to fall short of their responsibility to adequately cover either these moments of violence or the broader efforts to destroy American democracy, using muted language and words such as “protesters” and “opponents” to describe these traitors, whether they be individuals invading the Capitol or those speaking inside its chambers.

And it represents the failure of schools and colleges and universities, which must do more—and better—in elevating the broader public sense of civic rights and responsibilities that come with democracy. The erosion of trust in our educational institutions, a result of external and internal forces, is something we at Lumina can do something about—or at least help by being a catalyst to support the efforts of others to rebuild and reshape our democracy, our economic and social compact, and our shared responsibility for service to each other. For the past year, we have been considering how degree, certificate, and certification programs can contribute to shoring up our democracy and encouraging the active, informed citizenship of all voting-age adults, no matter their academic backgrounds or professional ambitions. This part of our new “innovation and discovery” work aims to expand how we think about community and political engagement and use that expanded definition to reinvigorate approaches to preparing people for active citizenship. In this effort, we have already been inspired by the impressive recent organizing and community engagement efforts led by a new generation of leaders, especially those representing Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities.

Now, misinformation as part of the American experiment is nothing new. What’s new is a global trend toward authoritarianism. Strongman leaders such as Trump and those he admires (and their supporters) demand conformity, using the tools of propaganda and fearfear of change, fear of loss, fear of “the other.” People who’ve been lied to repeatedly by their own president and falsely told that elections were “stolen” made up most of yesterday’s mob. They don’t knowor don’t believethat national security, homeland security agencies, the U.S. attorney general, and numerous state and local election officials and judges across the country from both parties who tell them the elections were fair. People whose economic security and personal wellbeing are threatened make the best audiences for this. It’s no coincidence that in the United States, the ranks of the violently aggrieved have swollen as middle-class opportunities and economic mobility have shrunk.

“Recovery” and “reconciliation” are words you’ll hear me use more in the coming days and weeks. I’m concerned not only about the current damage, and risk of what we’ve experienced, but the risk and damage that lies ahead in the next two weeks and during the next several years. We need to recover from the self-harm that the last four years has inflicted on the nation, whether economically, socially, morally, from the virus, from the cancerous racial injustice and inequity that has metastasized and grown, from the intentional destruction of cherished institutions in pursuit of greed and personal benefit, and from the damage done to our global reputation as a beacon of opportunity, of freedom, and of democracy. And we must work toward a process of reconciliation, working together, in uncomfortable ways, to repair the damage that has been done. Of course, reconciliation will be extremely difficult until we fix what’s broken, starting with greater inclusion, with greater opportunity, and with an education-supported economic and social renewal.

While today was not a day for ordinary discussion with my Lumina colleagues, the exchanges I’ve had with them, and with others in the field since President-elect Joe Biden’s lawful election was affirmed, leave me confident we will rise to this challenge, this threat, in a way that is consistent with our mission but also reflects our ambitions for the work ahead.

The fact that we will have two paradigm-shattering new senators in Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff–and that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be spending a lot of time in the Capitol and the Senate chambers—serves as a reminder of why participation in our democratic institutions is so vital to our very existence and why we should feel a sense of hope and resolve as we look ahead.

At the end of the day, I want all of you whom we work with to know how much I appreciate all that you do, individually and collectively. Our families matter. Our work matters. We can, and we will support each in the days ahead. Thank you for all you do, more than ever.

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