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Voting and principled leadership offer vehicles to channel the energy of dissent into lasting change

From the President

Kresge President Rip Rapson has been writing daily notes to the staff during the COVID-19 pandemic as we continue to work from home. We are sharing a selection of these letters that touch on current events and issues relevant to these unprecedented times.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the unthinkable irresponsibility of holding rallies while the coronavirus is escalating across the country. Using them to exacerbate anxiety and division was every bit as reprehensible.

On one hand, we’ve grown numb to the depreciation of the seriousness of the health crisis. On the other hand, however, refusing to normalize this behavior is one of the many virtues of the peaceful protest movement that continues to take to the nation’s streets – keeping up pressure for racial justice generally and for meaningful restructuring of the attitudes, practices, and policies that enable, protect, and engender police misconduct specifically.

We desperately need antidotes that will fortify and extend the street organizing. We are all looking for vehicles to both channel the energy of dissent into enduring change and elevate the discourse of social justice over the regurgitation of grievance. We might take our bearings from two sources.

The first is the tenacious embrace of the voting franchise. Even with a tenth of polling places open for business, too few health safeguards for people lining up to vote or entering the polling stations, persistent and pernicious suppression efforts, and widespread uncertainties resulting from unprecedented levels of absentee voting, millions of people have demonstrated over the last months that they are prepared to make huge sacrifices to make their voices heard.

Just this week, voters in five states went to the polls for primary elections, including key races in Kentucky and New York. We’ll have to wait on the absentee ballots to see the results, but every indication is that people were motivated at very high levels. The April primary in Wisconsin echoed that conclusion.

Photo by Kari Sullivan on Unsplash

This presages what promises to be yet one more divisive cultural war: whether voting by mail undermines election “integrity” or is instead the most sensible course to ensure safe and full participation in the franchise. Two-dozen lawsuits have been filed this spring on both sides of the issue – on one hand, challenging loosened restrictions as invitations to fraud and, on the other,  arguing for more permissive policies for mail-in voting or same-day registration. The side-taking is drearily predictable: one party seeing in more expansive voting a plot to advance a “liberal” agenda and issues, the other interpreting calls for more extensive “safeguards” a scheme to suppress voting by communities of color.

I choose to be optimistic. At the end of the day, the truism seems clear: more voting engagement strengthens democracy. We’ll get there, and we’re doing our small part – much of the Opportunity Funds’ investments over the remainder of the year are aimed to helping us do that. (Find out how to register to vote in your state.)

The second source of optimism is the continuing example of principled leadership offered by former-President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama stated in a joint appearance with Joe Biden yesterday:

“The good news, what makes me optimistic is, the fact that there is a Great Awakening going on around the country particularly among younger people who are saying not only that they are fed up with the shambolic, disorganized, mean-spirited approach to governance that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, but more than that – that they are eager to take on some of the core challenges that have been facing this country for centuries. … Whatever you’ve done so far is not enough. And I hold myself and Michelle and my kids to the same standard.”

I see in our organization as well a desire to do even more – despite the enormous efforts each of our teams is making to advance equity and inclusion, we are called to even higher ground. That seemed a clear message both from our Trustees and from our staff in recet weeks. Having just reviewed our latest round of grantmaking, I’m confident that that message is being heard and acted on.  Thank you.