Growling and Kicking for Social Change
It is time for Americans to bring together two powerful forces that are often disconnected – the desire to serve and the necessity to take social action to change systems that often give rise to the need for these services, said Gara LaMarche, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies, in this speech at the Encore Careers Summit at Stanford University.
It has been thrilling to be here, and to see in vibrant human diversity the living examples of the “investments” that The Atlantic Philanthropies and our partners at the Templeton Foundation have made. It happens that, almost certainly by accident, the average age of this year’s Purpose Prize winners places their birth almost exactly at the moment that Americans of a certain age will never forget, the September 11 of its time — December 7, 1941, what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a day that will live in infamy.”
Though it took place 13 years before I was born, I feel a special affinity for December 7, because like this year, that date fell on a Sunday, long before the 24/7 media environment that now engulfs us. I grew up in a small Rhode Island town, and its evening newspaper, The Westerly Sun, founded by Seventh Day Adventists, did not publish on Saturday, but did publish on Sunday. Not a paragon of journalism, the Sun, but as the only Sunday evening newspaper in the United States, it scooped the nation on Pearl Harbor. Small towns have to claim what distinctions we have. Wasilla, Alaska has Sarah Palin, Westerly has the country’s first headline reporting the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Despite the infamy that spurred it, the American and allied response to the Pearl Harbor attacks ushered in what Tom Brokaw has called “the greatest generation,” accelerating the social changes that transformed the United States in the years to come — greatly expanding the access of working people to higher education through the G.I. bill, eroding some racial and ethnic barriers and stereotypes, bringing more women into the workforce. The atrocities revealed by the liberation of the Nazi death camps galvanized the world community to create the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — whose anniversary we celebrate this Wednesday — giving force to a shared recognition that national sovereignty would never again trump fundamental human rights.
In all these matters — the drive for full racial and gender equality, the commitment to narrow the gap between rich and poor, the belief that international cooperation is the way to solve global problems, the resolve to end genocide, and in so many other ways we have often faltered, and failed the vision of those who came before us. But the arc of human progress, as Martin Luther King put it, continues to bend toward justice. In the Second World War, crisis shook up systems, forged innovation, and advanced equality and progress.
Do we stand at a similar moment today? I hope and believe we do, and I want to talk with you about how I believe Purpose Prize winners and fellows and all encore careerists are essential to seizing that moment and bending the arc more sharply toward justice.
Let me say a few words about why Atlantic has been so excited about the Purpose Prize. Atlantic is one of the too-few foundations with a focus on aging, and indeed in each of the countries in which we work we are the largest private funder in that field. For us, a focus on aging has two closely intertwined aspects.
First, on the whole, in developed countries like the United States, most people are living longer. To go back to Franklin Roosevelt for a moment, Jack Rosenthal of the New York Times Company Foundation made an impression on me a year or two back when he said that he had just finished reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, on FDR and Eleanor, and was startled to realize, reading the epilogue, that FDR and every significant person in the story, except Eleanor, who made it to her early seventies, was dead by the age of 65. That day’s New York Times, however, and every day’s since, had one obituary after another of prominent people living to their late 80s and 90s.
Studs Terkel, the great journalist, activist and megaphone for the stories of ordinary people, who died last month in his beloved Chicago, wrote four books after the age of ninety, and if I am not mistaken more or less started his encore career, with Division Street, Working and other now-classic volumes, around the time we generally consider “retirement” age — or, as we see from the not-too-distant Roosevelt example, when most people in earlier generations might already have been dead.
So our aging work asks the question: what can we do to lift up examples of older adults who in these expanding bonus years are giving, innovating and serving? What can we do to craft policies and build institutions that will help unlock this enormous potential, indeed help it turn into an unstoppable force?
But at the same time we recognize that for too many older adults — particularly at this moment of financial crisis not seen since the great depression, where the value of retirement accounts, like foundation endowments and government tax revenues, has plummeted — an encore career may be or seem a luxury. A luxury when you are struggling to keep your house, or help your children, the first generation in this country who may be less well off than their parents, or indeed help your own frail and elderly parents. For too many older adults the later years are times of enormous need and insecurity — financially, medically and socially.
And even as we celebrate the enormous potential of late-life social activism, we need to acknowledge that the opportunities to engage in it are acutely limited by social inequality. I learned Friday from Bob Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health just how stark these can be. An Asian-American woman living in the wealthy suburbs of New Jersey can expect to live until 91 years of age. A black man in an American Rust Belt city? 58. In that 33-year gap is an incalculable loss of human capacity, and narrowing it — bringing us to a society in which where you are born or reside, or what your skin color is, does not circumscribe life’s outcomes, and even the length of life itself — is our most urgent priority.
This frames our agenda in very sharp terms. We need not only to tap the power, the knowledge, the wisdom of age; we need to do that in a way that works for older adults across all economic, social, racial and ethnic lines. Purpose Prize winner Catalino Tapia points the way, showing us that you don’t have to be rich or well-connected to give back, you don’t need a college degree to have a brilliant idea; you need passion and humanity and energy. Tapia arrived in America from Mexico at age twenty with a sixth grade education and six dollars in his pocket. He worked hard to support his family, and eventually started his own gardening business. After proudly watching his son graduate from UC Berkeley law school, Tapia decided that more young Latinos should have the same opportunity for success and he launched the Bay Area Gardeners Foundation, a nonprofit comprised of area gardeners that provides college scholarships to low-income Latinos. In 2007, they awarded grants to 18 students.
I am billed here today as giving a “call to action,” and I thought that was a strange challenge, particularly for me, since I do not come as many of last night’s speakers do, out of a call-and-response tradition. I come out of pre-Vatican II Catholicism where your job in the pews is to keep your mouth shut, not talk back to the man in the pulpit — yes, that’s why I am no longer in the pews — and when you are asked to open your mouth, you do it in Latin. But it’s stranger still after spending a day with all of you, because it has become crystal clear that you need no call to action — action is why you are all here. Not only are you taking action to improve the world around us, my guess is you find it impossible not to take action.
A word on that notion of the imperative of action: for years I worked for Human Rights Watch, and was privileged to meet many activists from around the world who showed amazing courage in situations that would be unimaginable for almost any of us. The crusading journalist in Colombia who continued to write and publish despite vicious death squads who could extinguish his life the next time he stepped out of his office for a cup of coffee; the Rwandan activist who stayed to help her neighbors even as soldiers were moving house to house through her village wielding machetes already dripping with blood. How do people keep going in circumstances like these?
And the answer, I invariably learned as I came to know them, is that they can’t not keep going. These heroes don’t feel heroic, because they don’t feel a choice. They care, and they act on that caring, because justice and compassion are not to them abstractions. They are in the blood. And so I feel it is for so many of you, and for thousands like you who are not in this room. My call to action must recognize that, and it does.
So I want to conclude with two things. First, while the potential to act on caring is in the blood of every human being, many are indeed waiting to be asked as we heard last night from Purpose Prize winner Michele McRae. A federal resettlement program recent delivered thousands of refugees from 40 war-torn countries to Fargo, North Dakota. McRae took Giving+Learning, a small pilot project engaging older adults as tutors for new Americans, and turned it into a volunteer operation of more than 500 people who teach not only basic language skills but also help the refugees get their GEDs, pass driver’s license exams, find jobs and more. In the days after the September 11 attacks there was an incredible outpouring of support from around the country and the world for my hurting city. As a New Yorker whose Brooklyn back yard was dusted with the ashes from the Twin Towers this has special meaning for me. First responders from North Dakota to North Carolina converged upon the city to help; school children from Montgomery to Mumbai sent their pennies and their rupees. It is by now commonplace to observe that our national leadership at that moment squandered the gift of caring and international solidarity; our fellow citizens were instead encouraged instead to shop, and our global partners soon found it was our way or the highway.
We’ve turned a corner on that, I fervently hope. We have a new president whose own life, starting with his days as a community organizer in New York and Chicago, is testimony to unlocking the power of ordinary people, and whose campaign was an unprecedented example of citizenship in action. Many of us who have in recent years lamented the state of our democracy, who feared it was almost beyond repair, are now faced with a different challenge: how to maintain the huge and passionate civic engagement of the past year and keep it going as a force for progressive change at this historic moment? At a moment, our new president seems to recognize, of Rooseveltian dimensions, where the greatest crisis in decades is also the greatest opportunity to bend the arc?
From every sign we get, President-elect Obama will call on Americans, of all ages, to engage more deeply in our communities, with our neighbors, to address the urgent challenges reflected in the work that each of you is doing: to protect our planet, welcome immigrants into our communities and former prisoners back into them, to provide health care for the underserved, mentor hard-to-reach kids and open the doors to college; the list goes on and on.
So my first call to action is for those of us here, both those with the money and the platform, like Atlantic and our foundation colleagues, and everyone else with energy, passion and voice, to make the most of this moment. Respond to the call of a new president when he asks what we can do for our country, a country in which many of us are happily surprised to find we take a newfound pride. Help to pass the Kennedy-Hatch bill and other measures to build institutions, the new and improved and inclusive versions of the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, building on the success of the Experience Corps, that give structure and funding to this movement. Help to push for a Third Age Bill that could help millions of Americans launch encore careers through tuition assistance and retraining programs. Don’t let this moment pass: seize it, expand it, fly with it.
Finally, I want to talk about troublemaking, the surprise theme of this summit. Each of us makes trouble in our own way, but let’s make some more. Because what we need to do in the days ahead is to bring together two powerful things that have too often been disconnected. We need to join the desire to serve – to teach newcomers English, to train inmates in job skills, to give scholarships to poor kids — with social action that is aimed at the policies and the systems that often give rise to the need for service in the first place. Service is not servility. Service is a companion to and a predicate for action.
We need to stop immigration raids on factories and homes that detain and deport the future Catalino Tapias and build a path to citizenship for over twelve million undocumented persons. We need to build schools, not prisons, and revisit the draconian drug and sentencing laws that have put more young men of color behind bars than behind desks in college classrooms. We need policies that make public schools work for all kids, and college affordable when they graduate. We need as much attention to the destruction of young promise as to weapons of mass destruction, and a fierce urgency of now that treats the promise and potential of our children every bit as seriously as the failures of Wall Street titans and Detroit carmakers.
We need to marry service with advocacy to change policy, law and the flow of money, because otherwise we cannot get the job done, and we will continue to feel as we too often do that we are emptying the ocean with a teacup. You and millions like you are uniquely poised to step up even more boldly to this challenge, because you and the people you serve have the authenticity to be listened to. When you put in the hours to help young men who’ve paid dearly for their personal mistakes with prison time, as has Mark Goldsmith, Purpose Prize winner and founder of Getting Out and Staying Out, you have the credibility to tell the New York State Senate that the Rockefeller drug laws are a societal mistake. We can’t continue to have two tracks of engagement in this country, one aimed at winning elections and passing laws and the other at helping our neighbors. The two must come together, and when they do, they will be multiplied a thousandfold.
I believe we are on the cusp of that exciting moment. And if those of us who have been in the vanguard of the movement to tap the potential of older adults and harness purpose can do that, together, in the words of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, we “boomers” “may be remembered more for what we did in our sixties than what we did in the Sixties.”
But to do that we need to recapture some of the spirit of the 1960s, of the children of the greatest generation who held this nation to its founding promises and saved it with their marches and their courageous journeys south as surely as those who fought on the fields of Europe. They stopped a war and built a civil rights movement that today enables Barack Obama to take the same oath of office as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, men who owned human beings of Obama’s color and ancestry.
Another of those predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, though an ardent segregationist, has a quote I very much like, and that only one in a million would associate with him. It is this: “I believe that the weakness of the American character is that there are so few growlers and kickers amongst us.”
We had a wonderful example of growling and kicking the month before last in Ireland, one of the other countries in which The Atlantic Philanthropies works. In trying to cut the national budget, the Irish Government abolished the entitlement to a medical card, which guarantees free access to health care and medicine for people over 70. Fresh from their recent involvement in the Atlantic-supported Older and Bolder campaign, thousands of older Irish citizens literally took to the streets and forced the government to back down.
On this side of the Atlantic — the ocean, not the foundation — let’s prove Woodrow Wilson wrong. Let’s serve, yes, but let’s step up the growling and kicking, too.