1. Put our differences aside in pursuit of the mission.
In his speech, President Obama pointed to the military’s ability to put aside differences and focus on the mission. On many military missions, it’s life or death for those involved. For much of our work in the social sector it’s life or death, too. While there are some bright spots of organizations coming together in pursuit of a common agenda, we still have a long way to go.
The call to action for all of us, social sector or not, is to do the hard, personal work that brings our individual, unconscious biases and fears into consciousness so we can move beyond them and join with others to accomplish our missions. As I explored in my post earlier this week, those who have successfully created big, transformative social change have been skilled at finding common ground among unlikely partners.
2. Advocate for the voiceless, those who can’t even dream of the American dream.
President Obama’s speech called for keeping the fundamental American promise alive. As he said, it’s the “promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”
I’m in full support of restoring this promise, but we must not forget the millions who can’t even dream of this most fundamental American dream because it’s so far removed from their reality.
Realizing the American promise assumes that one’s most basic physiological needs—those at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, such as the need for food and water—are met, at least to some extent. The reality: One in five children are at risk of hunger in America. They wonder where their next meal will come from. Their families likely aren’t thinking about owning a home, going to college or saving for retirement. They are thinking about survival. Our great opportunity in the social sector is to make sure their voices and plight are heard.
Politically, it may have been smart for President Obama to talk about the American promise, which speaks to the country’s middle class, but the independent sector has the chance to do what isn’t always politically smart yet is morally right. Our call to action is to get even smarter about how best to advocate for and put pressure on our elected officials to do what is morally right.
3. Assume our responsibility to change the system.
Numerous times throughout his speech Obama referenced the many ways in which our federal government, systems and institutions aren’t working. This was brought to light as he talked about Jackie and her journey to get a job. He shared his agenda to “cut through the maze of confusing training programs, so that from now on, people like Jackie have one program, one website, and one place to go for all the information and help that they need.”
In this case, he was talking about the clutter of information around training programs, but there are countless federal programs, designed to help people in need, that are rendered ineffective in reaching and engaging the very people they are designed to help. If we take, for example, the federal income tax system alone—with which we all interact every year—there is a virtual labyrinth of tax breaks and credits that were set up for the express purpose of helping us! Every year, I find myself irritated, on the verge of anger, when it comes to tax time. That’s because even I, who have received a good education, can’t interpret some of the tax policies and determine whether or not I am eligible. Consider those who don’t have the luxury of the same education, or for whom the money at stake, if they can’t take advantage of a particular tax credit, makes the difference between putting food on the table for their family, or helping their children enroll in community college.
If we want big change to happen, we have to get savvy about the massive systems in which we operate, and advocate for public policy and structural changes to the systems and processes that keep so many from accessing the very programs that can positively impact their lives.
I would love to hear whether these calls ring true for you or whether the President’s address brought something else to mind. Please share your thoughts below!