We Need A Hero?…
As a democracy America faces an interesting challenge. On one hand we are a media driven culture that looks for individuals to lead and inspire us. We seek out individuals, and hold them up as examples of what we value as a society and what we aspire to become ourselves. America sees itself as being built on the legacy of "Rugged Individualism" and a "Cult of Personality" that makes individual personalities out as the core of a movement, event or action. We can't talk Civil Rights without Dr. King, Civil War without Lincoln or our nation's creation without Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. These historical references are incomplete without a "Face" to guide our understanding of events.
This is no less true in current events. Scott Walker is as much an iconic figure as he is a real person. Barack Obama has become either a hero, or a villain depending on your political ideology. In both cases we often take the focus away from their policies and actions and instead focus on our political leaders as celebrities or images. By trying to "humanize" important figures, we also distract ourselves from dealing with issues. Politics, economic policies and foreign policy decisions become as much of a tabloid feature as they do discussions with real consequences.
Yet, while we can't ignore, and shouldn't forget, the contributions that individuals make to our society as a whole, it is also important to remember that any individual's impact is only made significant by the faceless masses that give these leaders their support and power. A leader without followers isn't a leader, and a movement without people isn't a movement. In addition, our nation's democratic system of government, by definition, requires the support of people to elect leaders to positions where they can make their ideals into legislation and policy. While some people have tried to circumvent the system and use their influence/money to hijack the process, in the end the people will have their say, one way or another.
Our leaders can guide a movement and inspire people to follow their leadership, or they can ride the coattails of a group and manipulate their way to the forefront. America, like all nations, has had its fair share of both types of leadership. At times we have had difficulty discerning the difference between true leaders and the person who is a leader by opportunity. In this day and age of media hype and misleading information that's presented as fact it is even more difficult to identify those who are true leaders.
In many ways our political process muddies the waters even further by making our elected leaders go through a process that requires them to try and define themselves, while at the same time being defined by a media driven to create or destroy individuals. We recently finished a political campaign season that was as much a soap opera as it was a political exercise. Too often we are left with choices between political creatures who are beholden to outside interests and who are more concerned with image than they are representing or guiding the people who elect them. We are given leaders who are more like parasites, gaining personal power and wealth while draining their members assets, physically, emotionally and morally.
In this climate where every move is scrutinized and every position that is taken is subject to extensive, and often uniformed, critiques, it is no wonder that we find ourselves struggling to find true leaders. Part of the problem is the climate, but another challenge is that true leaders are not easy to find. People who can inspire others, while still maintaining their focus and staying grounded in their own humanity are truly rare treasures. They are the people who become historical icons and who leave a lasting legacy behind them. They are also people who are able to accept their own failings and look to those around them for support and guidance. They exist in a symbiotic relationship with their followers gaining strength from those who support them, while also providing strength and guidance. They listen to others and their thinking evolves over time, always progressing towards some goal. They are also able to bring people together and get others to consider different viewpoints. These are the people who, even when you disagree with their positions you can still find ways to work together with.
These are the people that we need to identify and cultivate as we work to move our nation towards a progressive, socially just society. We need them at all levels of our government, and we need them in our grassroots organizations too. We need leaders on a large scale, but we also need leaders who can inspire people locally as well. Our current political, social and economic landscape is filled with people trying to be leaders, but in the end there are some key leadership roles that we must see filled.
State Level- Conservatives in Wisconsin have a number of people who they can rally behind, the most obvious being Scott Walker and Paul Ryan. I won't pretend to be unbiased in my portrayal of these GOP leaders. In my opinion they have done more self-promotion than they have leading. They have entrenched themselves in an extremist philosophy that is not about finding ways to make our society better, but rather seeks to seize and control power and wealth for a minority of citizens. The fact that they have been less than honest about their motives and have actively sought to divide the people of Wisconsin is another strike against their credentials as leaders.
A $200 tax cut over two years! Wow, that's less than $2 a week.
While my mistrust and frustration with the Walker administration and the GOP leadership in Wisconsin is readily apparent, at the same time I recognize that these are the people who have control of much of the government of my state. They are the people we need to work with, if possible, for the next several years and to ignore or perpetually chastise them puts Wisconsin progressives in a position of being similar to the anti-Obama conservatives who have disrupted Washington D.C. Like it or not, this is the government we have and we must do everything possible to force them to come to the table and try to govern together. This is difficult and it is also difficult to see policies enacted that are harmful and spiteful towards a majority of Wisconsinites.
The mutually hostile political climate that exists here is one that magnifies the need for leadership. Engaging in heated rhetoric has its place, but won't help move our state forward. The last thing that we want to happen is to see gridlock result in policies and actions that harm more people in Wisconsin. We've seen that happen in Washington as legislators debate endlessly while their inaction creates hardship across the nation. True leaders will keep fighting, and keep talking to the end. This is difficult in an environment where those in power are looking to destroy their opposition, but there are good people on both sides who need to step up and find ways to work through the animosity.
Here in Wisconsin we are still looking for that statewide leader who can bring the many factions who oppose Walker's extremist positions together. We saw this issue clearly during the recall effort and the fact that Tom Barrett didn't receive widespread, enthusiastic support. The challenge is to find someone who can inspire progressives and still communicate effectively with moderates.
Locally- School Board and MMSD Superintendent- Madison is bracing for a vitally important school board election as well as the hiring of a new superintendent to lead our public school system. With all that is going on in terms of public education "reform" and the challenges that public schools face, this is an area where true leaders are greatly needed.
It is an area where we are seeing unnecessary factions form and divides between groups widen. I say unnecessary factions because many of the groups that are in conflict should really be allies. School administration and school staff should be united in the face of the attacks on public education from the far right. School administration and staff should be united with our families in poverty and those demographic groups who face our Achievement Gaps. Good schools benefit our whole community and business leaders should stand behind quality public schools. Instead of uniting at a crucial time we are facing the prospect of conflict between groups.
Wisconsin’s parents call for reinvestment in public schools: “Repair the damage!” | Institute for Wi
This isn't to say that we should ignore the differences that exist, or that the enemy of my enemy is by definition a true friend. However, many of the groups currently involved in the battles for public education are closer in their desired outcomes than they may realize, or want to admit.
Stepping into this fray will be some new faces who need to demonstrate their ability to articulate the goals of public education and to stand firm in their defense of our public schools. They will face the challenge of bringing groups together and building trust between factions. The people of Madison want their children to have access to the best education possible and it is up to the leadership of our school district to promote public schools as the best resource for our community's future.
We need advocates of public education to step into positions of leadership, and truly lead. No more hiding behind the "reforms" like NCLB or Race to the Top and claiming that there isn't anything that can be done in the current climate. Instead, we need leaders in education who are willing to support the families and educators of Madison in their efforts to preserve, protect and promote public schools as cornerstones of our society.
In the midst of the challenges there are also opportunities that wouldn't exist without the conflicts. More people are paying attention to public education because of the attention focused on "reforms" and public educator unions. The discussion may be heated at times, but with the passionate debate comes the chance for powerful compromise. If we select the best leaders for key positions in public education, we will be able to survive and thrive, even in these difficult times.
Grassroots/Organizations/Unions- In many ways, I believe that most of our true leaders are found at the "lowest" level of organization. This is where we find people motivating and inspiring others, often not for personal profit or glory, but because they feel a passion for the causes they support. As you work your way up the leadership "food chain" the pressures intensify and people can lose touch with those that they once represented.
Yet, at the same time it is often difficult for leaders at these levels to see the "bigger picture", and to form coalitions beyond their immediate base. It is also a struggle to be heard by those who can influence bigger policy decisions. We also see grassroots leaders who are talented and motivated pulled in directions that encourage them to seek higher positions with more influence and prestige.
What is important for leaders at these levels to remember is that, in the end we are all limited in our ability to make change in the world. While he lead a movement that made tremendous progress towards a socially just society, Dr. King wasn't able to totally eradicate racism. All the power and influence in the world can't change everything for everyone. So along with the leaders who are recognized on a large scale we need people working in individual neighborhoods, schools and on issues that seem important to only a small number of people. All of our efforts together are what moves a society in any given direction. It truly is up to all of us to determine what course our society follows.
During the past couple of years the importance of strong leadership has become more and more apparent to me, while at the same time I have seen the power of the collective whole working together. Along the way I have also come to realize that, in the end, my world is shaped by many factors, few more important than who I choose as my leaders, my peers, or groups I associate myself with. I am always telling my students that their success in school is heavily influenced by who they choose to be close friends with. It is no different for adults. Who we align ourselves with shapes much of our reality and adults are certainly not immune to peer pressure of all types.
While our associations with others is a great influence on us, in the end we are responsible for our choices, our words and our actions. I have formed many close associations with people as a result of my increased activity on the political, union and educational fronts, and each organization or individual has had an impact on my views of the world and how I work towards my own goals. I value my colleagues and friends, but am still hold on to my individual ideals. This may require me to debate, discuss and compromise in order to maintain my values while still benefiting from the power of a group. It can be a struggle to maintain individuality while being a member of something or associating with a specific individual, but if we truly want to be able to impact society as a whole (with all of its diversity) we need to find ways to work with those who share similar beliefs and values.
Do we need leaders? Of course we do, but we can't wait for someone to tell us what is right and guide us to act on our beliefs. Each of us is responsible for the impact we have on the world we live in. We may not end up immortalized in a history book, mentioned prominently in the press, or even recognized by those in our immediate circles, but we still need to make our mark and represent ourselves in whatever capacity we can. This idea is summed up in a couple of quotes found in the book Bearing the Cross by David J. Carrow.
"By idolizing those whom we honor we do a disservice both to them and to ourselves. By exalting the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr., into a legendary tale that is annually told, we fail to recognize his humanity…that are similar to yours and mine. By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise."
"If people think that it was Martin Luther King's movement, then today they --young people-- are more likely to say 'gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us.' … If people knew how that movement started, then the question they would ask themselves is, 'What can I do?'"