"I love my people"

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These four small, powerful words are what one leader told me last week as to why she works so hard in her community. Her words echoed those of her AARP colleagues in the room. I suspect if I had asked you the same question after four days of our working together you might have said something similar. But, in the rush and busyness of our days, these words can be easy to forget, misplace, or cake over. Now, more than ever, we must remember them.

The woman who spoke these words was part of a Harwood Public Innovators Lab in Chicago made up of 60 incredible AARP staff and volunteer leaders. The group was the one of the most diverse Labs in recent times. My guess is that the group was evenly split among African Americans, Hispanics, and whites. The group held deep – and emotional – conversations about what it means to create change in our current environment.

And this environment does not make for easy times. Throughout the Lab, people returned time and again to the urgent need in the country to restore a sense of connection and relationship between and among people if there is to be any chance to address our most pressing public concerns – this, especially as our nation becomes ever more diverse, income gaps continue to grow, trust erodes, and people turn away from one another.

When faced with these and other conditions, each of us can find ourselves getting caught up in placing blame at each other’s feet and entangled in our own inward-looking efforts of strategic planning, public relations and fund-raising. We can believe that we must run even harder and faster to achieve our goals. Before we even realize it, in our activities we can lose sight of the very community itself. But isn’t it the lives of others that we hope to positively impact through our efforts?

On the final morning of the Lab I asked people to turn their attention to their Personal Covenant, a document the Institute created for individuals to forge an agreement with themselves about how they will engage in their public work and stay true to themselves. Inevitably, the covenant leads people to take stock of what the world calls them to do and where they want to be. It asks them how they will help to create better conditions in public life – to counter the negativity and divisiveness.

To make the covenant real we must first step forward ourselves; then we must be willing to see and hear one another. This is neither a complicated nor complex step. It does not ask us to do something we do not already know we must do. But it does require us to be intentional in tapping into a spirit and inclination that exists within us but which is easy to lose: our love of people.

Such affections can seem fleeting these days as public life becomes ever more mired in acrimony and divisiveness; as we become ever more fragmented, even isolated; as people (ourselves included) trade in preconceived notions about others, without even realizing the damage done.

As we pursue our projects and programs, a little reminder to ourselves of our humanity might do us all some good. And yet, for that to happen we must pause and remember why we engage at all and if our engagement reflects what we cherish: our love of people.