Leading Our Leaders

Simon - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Entered on August 22, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50

In America, many of us have a picture of late summer as a time of simple pleasures: the warmth of the sun, lightening bugs at sunset, friends at a barbeque.

But three years ago, it was a time of unspeakable loss and devastation on the Gulf Coast, and a shocking wake-up call for the rest of America. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped through communities. Homes, families, and hope were destroyed in a flash.

As we reflect on the third anniversary of that terrible time, we’re also looking toward the Presidential election and a new beginning in the White House. It’s tempting, as America struggles with many new challenges, to get swept up in the rhetoric we hear around us. But we need look no further than Katrina to know that reality all too often falls far short of rhetoric, and leaders often do not lead.

In fact, it often happens that we the people need to manifest the direction in which the country must go. We cannot wait for action; we must set it in motion.

Too often, we believe that individuals of good will cannot, actually, do much. That real change demands top-down action, and only people with authority, or wealth, or both, can make a real impact.

But again, we need look no further than Katrina to realize how false this impression is. Three years later, the Gulf Coast is a patchwork of success and failure, renaissance and desolation. Some were able to get back on their feet, but many were not.

Because some got the help they needed – but many did not.

So often, what stands between disaster and survival is just a little help. Not huge programs, not millions of dollars. Think of the micro-loans provided by Grameen Bank in India, Bangladesh, Benin: Little influxes of capital that literally save families and rebuild communities.

We have to bring this concept home to America. I think of the New Orleans restaurant owner who told me about his struggle to renovate his business once the flood waters receded. I was sure this was a million dollar job, a terrible burden he would carry with him for years. I remember how stunned I was to hear that $6,000 later, he was back on the on his feet.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The notion that every effort matters is the motivating factor behind my entire professional life. I was a labor organizer for years, and today I’m the CEO of Foundation dedicated to social justice. I’ve spent my life watching the impact that small groups of well-intentioned people can have. I’ve seen that each of us carries within us the capacity to foster enormous change.

The great Jewish thinker Maimonides taught that there are eight degrees of charity that increasingly approach the Divine ideal. The eighth degree, the most righteous method of helping others, is to lend money anonymously, in a manner which allows the needy to become self-sufficient.

Not set the needy up for life. Not give away everything you own. And certainly not insist that those in need pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No, the greatest form of helping others is to give or loan just what is necessary to allow them to become self-sufficient. Scrape up $6,000, so a business owner can go back to feeding his community, and his family.

We cannot stop hurricanes, and we cannot force our leaders to lead.

But we, ourselves, can lead. Every little decision, every little act of generosity, leads us to a better tomorrow. Three years after Katrina, a lot of people in the Gulf Coast are still waiting for just a little bit of help.