Where Will You Stand?

Let’s start with Monday’s news. In his endorsement of Barack Obama, Senator Ted Kennedy sought to position the young candidate alongside his brothers, John and Bobby, both of whom sought to usher in a new day in politics, one infused with service and idealism rather than triangulation and fear. Now, once again, there’s something undeniable emerging across the nation: a new breed of leader who sees public life and politics differently. Two basic questions stand before us with concern to this new breed of leader, and only you and I and others like us hold the answers to these questions. Whether Barack Obama is one of these new leaders remains to be seen. But there is a growing cadre of such leaders dotting the American landscape including, for instance, mayors such as Cory Booker (Newark), Adrian Fenty (DC), Jay Williams, (Youngstown) and, yes, Michael Bloomberg (New York City). In my essay Make Hope Real, I write about this new breed of leaders as:

“…people who have highly pragmatic approaches to policy, who seek to find ways to make public life and politics work rather than to disparage it, who vigilantly look for opportunities to engage people in the ongoing process of governing and improving their lives, who try to avoid hyperbolic and heated rhetoric.”

If we truly want to usher in a new day in public life and politics, each of us will need to answer two fundamental questions:

1.  Will we stand by these new leaders when they come under fire? At issue is whether or not we literally stand beside these leaders and vouch for their integrity, even when we do not agree with a particular position. Will we say clearly that, we and others will not stand for scurrilous and mean-spirited attacks against them?Our willingness to stand beside this new breed of leader is essential if we want the trail-blazers to succeed and additional individuals to step forward. The task before us is to create the conditions for the new breed of leader to emerge, engage, and sustain their efforts. Each of us, hand-in-hand with others, can make this happen.2.  Will we assume our own role as public innovators?  No matter how good or inspiring an elected leader might be, no matter how much hope they might engender, the reality is that the majority of the actual work to be done in our communities and the nation must be done by us.

Each of us must continue our own good work, but we must also cultivate new public innovators so that we have more public allies; create new pockets of change that ripple out and produce greater impact; and transform various groups and institutions into catalytic, boundary-spanning organizations that can incubate change and bring people together. If we are to make real the hope of this new breed of leaders, then we must do this.

In recent weeks I’ve received a lot of phone calls, emails and notes from people asking me if I’m excited about how the current presidential race is unfolding, with its emphasis on “hope and change,” long-standing hallmarks of our work here at the Institute. Yes, I’m excited about the growing sense of possibility, but I am also old enough now to know that we cannot pin our hopes for change on one individual in the White House.  For presidents come and go; the true measure of hope is whether it resides in the houses of people all across America.

Let us seize this moment in history and support the new breed of leader emerging across America, and take our own place in this unfolding story to make hope real in all our communities.