A New Year of Engagement and Purpose

john a. powell

Director

Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Dear friends,

On this first day of 2017, I recognize that many of us may be ambivalently moving into this new year, as there is much uncertainty about our future. There are doubts not just about the upcoming change in our political leadership, but there are much deeper concerns for our democracy, our economy, our earth, and for all the people who call the United States home. Across the globe we are witnessing the rise in nationalist movements, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, exclusionary policies against those seeking refuge, and active disregard for our earth, its resources, and all the life it supports. 

Much of this doubt and uncertainty is about a future we cannot know until it arrives. But it would be a mistake to simply wait for it to come. We must continue to lay the groundwork for the best future we can imagine now. Our work needs to be based not only on what is happening now, but also how we understand our past. While there are things we know, there are also things we need to spend more time studying in order to get a clearer picture. It is important we examine the past because understanding helps us make decisions about our future and the use of our resources.

Here at the Haas Institute, we will be placing an emphasis in 2017 on a serious examination of the election, the campaign season, and the forces shaping the currents of our global order that led to election outcomes here and abroad. We need analyses built on both empirical and qualitative data to guide and inform our work building structures and narratives that include, not exclude. We will host conversations and convenings based on these findings, and we invite you to share your knowledge with us in this effort. Look to this forum and our website for more information in the weeks ahead.

What we do know is that lying at the heart of our challenges today is toxic inequality, a deep anxiety of those considered "Other," and a profound sense of loss.

As our country continues to become more diverse, a progressive framework of change based solely on economic concerns will not be a full enough response. Who we are (our identities) and what we have (the economy) are not the same, although they are deeply interrelated. No identity or community is solely organized around the economy. One only has to look at those in rural areas who are most in need of healthcare voting to rescind the Affordable Care Act to see that while this doesn't make sense from an economic or health perspective, it does make sense in the way some organize their identities.

Some may assert that we fix the destructive forces of Othering by first focusing on economic concerns, while others assert we must focus on issues of our fractured identities before we focus on the economy. Our approach is to deal with them in tandem—we must, as my colleagues Ian Haney-López and Robert Reich assert here, address both, and understand the ways in which they work together. 

For the health and future of our country, it is important that we make space where we all belong. We must connect concerns with identity, economy, place, and sense of self in a way that bridges, not breaks and divides. Bridging cannot dilute particular group identities or interests, but instead must create space within our identities that embraces our underlying connection to each other.

As we work to eliminate toxic inequality, we also have to resist the deep divide it has created. Part of that work will include facing anxiety and ambivalence on the left and in our movements as well. We will make mistakes, and our proposals and efforts will not always be perfect, but even as we hold ourselves accountable, I urge us to be soft on people while being hard on structures.

As we enter a new year that holds many uncertain outcomes, we can find solidity by grounding ourselves in a set of values that informs our work. Another effort we are embarking on in early 2017 is working with partners to produce a new inclusive social compact with America, one that includes all peoples in our pursuit of liberty and justice, and one that makes demands on our government to hold itself accountable to these values. We recognize that our strategies to achieve these values differ, but we hold the values themselves to be nonnegotiable.

Our belief in the foundational belonging and inclusion of all peoples, our rejection of the denial of anyone's humanity, our affirmation that we are all interconnected, and our commitment to care for our earth are values that cross real or constructed political, social, racial, religious, demographic, and geographical boundaries—and when these values form the connective tissue of our work, and when our efforts are grounded in an understanding of our past and history, we can better bridge towards a world where all belong.

Wishing you a 2017 filled with engagement and purpose, 
john a. powell 
Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society