June 14, 2017

Resist! How to Fight the Meanspiritedness in Political and Civil Life

  • In Alexandria, Va., the GOP Majority House Whip and others are shot by a gunman during practice for a congressional game.
  • A reporter is body slammed by a candidate for Congress — simply because he asked a question about a plan to replace Obamacare that is horrifying — 23 million more Americans would lose health insurance, and health premiums for older Americans would soar.
  • Two Muslim women are attacked by a knife-wielding hate monger on a train, and the two of three men who tried to protect them from harm are killed.
  • The White House releases a federal budget proposal that aims to reduce food stamps and Medicaid for millions of poor and working-class Americans, to support an effort to finance a tax-cut strategy to disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

These mean-spirited and inhumane civic and political events are just the latest frightening examples that have erupted in great number since the November election.

Racist, sexist, xenophobic, and anti-civil-rights activities have been on the rise, as have attacks and bullying on religion, voting, and other sacred American values and issues.

The protest marches that have erupted in response are helpful, but it’s time for nonprofits and foundations to be more strategic and disciplined in building coalitions and movements that can achieve victory in the most momentous moral, civic, and political fight of our generation.

What must we do?

  • Grant makers and others blessed with access to resources must find a way to enrich and amplify the voices of millennials and other young people who have strong views about how America needs to improve today ­— and about the country they want to live in tomorrow. Voters must become more active in advocacy efforts, and activists must vote. Peaceful civic engagement and participation across our nation must go into overdrive. We are in grave danger of giving America away to a narrative of injustice, exclusion, meanness, and trickle-down-from-the-wealthy economic opportunity — and this generation of young people has the most to lose. But it also has the most to gain if we channel our money and influence the right way.
  • We must find better ways to nurture and support civic warriors and activists at the grass-roots level. Policy proposals emerging from Washington embody the politics of injustice and exclusion, but the battle lines often play out at the local level. They show up in school-board fights, county and city law-enforcement and criminal-justice approaches, land-use decisions, economic-development strategies, and local and regional budgeting decisions. We need more grass-roots organizational leaders for equity, justice, peace, and real opportunity — and our current crop of such leaders need more support. This is fundamentally about investments in leadership development and requires a bold national strategy ­— or perhaps an amalgam of regional ones. We must stand tall and firm in response to a mean, divisive, bullying narrative.
  • All of us who find ourselves at odds with the mean-spirited behavior, proposals, and philosophy of this new Washington, D.C., must rally to unite in favor of a simple, powerful, unifying vision (there will be power in its simplicity) — one that counters the narrative of an oligarchical and exclusionary America. Merely being "against" something is not enough. We must develop a shared story of who we are, one that rallies Americans to remember that we are an inclusive, forward-leaning nation. That shared vision must become the new basis for government policies and changes in the way our systems, organizations, and politics work. As an example, let me point to my home state of California, which has been flirting with such a vision in recent years and must assert itself as a base camp for the resistance.

The foundation I head is dedicated to promoting wellness, health, and opportunity for the most marginalized people in California. We are limited in what we can do in the context of this large, epic battle. But if all courageous people at foundations and nonprofits join forces to rally in support of people who already find themselves in the fight, we can make a difference. This is a time for change, and not merely charity.

For those concerned about the obvious issue — partisan politics — allow me to offer the following. This fight is substantially bigger than the usual fault lines of partisan politics — Republicans versus Democrats, Trump versus Obama, Trump versus Clinton, or Fox News versus MSNBC.

We are now in an epic battle for the moral and civic soul of this nation; mean-spiritedness, divisiveness, exclusion, and a fundamental lack of compassion and decency are winning. All that is truly good, decent, and honorable about the imperfect nation that all of us in philanthropy love is at very serious risk. We have no choice but to act and act fast.

Robert Ross is chief executive of the California Endowment.