Somewhat randomly, in early November I finally delved into a biography (Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver) that had been sitting on my shelf for well . . . a while. For the benefit of the uninitiated, Sarge dedicated much of his life to progressive causes—founding the Peace Corps, launching the War on Poverty, and working to reduce nuclear proliferation. Reading about his life and times brought some light into my life in the aftermath of November 8. But I also recognized that Sarge’s story illustrates certain principles that will likely prove helpful to social justice warriors during the first year of the Trump presidency.
Striving to be more like Shriver seemed like a good New Year’s resolution. Here’s my understanding of what that could mean:
1) Boldly Innovating
Sargent Shriver wasn’t afraid of new policy ideas. He was a leader in the creation of several new federal programs that were a part of The Great Society and The New Frontier. Government bureaucrats wedded to the status quo did not fit in with his cadre of advisors and staffers. He surrounded himself with people who had the ability to think boldly and he urged them to do so.
Since the hey day of Shriver’s anti-poverty work, new national challenges have emerged. Significantly, wages have been on the decline, manufacturing jobs have been disappearing, and housing affordability has plummeted. Trump’s election will likely translate into a weakening or outright destruction of valued rights and protections. At risk are statutes and case law that promote economic security, equality, and justice.
Resolve to develop bold innovative solutions for modern problems and future ones developed by Trump and his compatriots in Congress. Surround yourself with other like-minded innovators.
2) Committing to the Long Haul
Shriver labored on various causes until he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease late in life. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, he lived and worked through some dark times. Well-known examples include the assassinations of his brothers-in-law (John and Robert Kennedy) and the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention which was followed by a presidential loss that crippled the party.
Though Shriver had a career that most would envy, he also experienced some personal failures. Most notably, he lost his bid for the presidency—badly. He had his share of naysayers who questioned his abilities and intelligence while hindering his ambitions.
Resolve to persist over the long haul, even as history inevitably takes some negative turns and others fail to value your personal contributions.
3) Recognizing Valuable Players
But certainly not everything is about self. Shriver identified certain groups as valuable resources to their nation, even as skeptical critics raised doubts. To him, America’s youth could be of real service to other nations while advancing the cause of peace. That was the foundation of the Peace Corps. Business people could help train youth to participate in the workforce. Some original Job Corps programs utilized this public-private partnership model. And he joined early proponents in believing that people living in poverty had a significant role to play in addressing their own challenges. This was the idea behind Community Action Agencies.
Resolve to recognize the ways in which the various parts of the body politic can and do contribute to building a better nation and world.
4) Putting Policy in Proper Perspective
Sargent Shriver was involved in the creation of several federal programs that still exist today. Since its early days, Head Start has successfully served low-income pre-schoolers while benefiting from significant political support. Other programs like Job Corps had worthy goals but stumbled out the gate on the road to incremental improvements and serving as the precursor to other highly praised youth employment programs.
Resolve to harness the skill of putting policies into proper perspective. Make valiant efforts to preserve and grow the Head Starts among federal programs. And do the same for those that have worthy missions but challenges that can and must be overcome.
5) Being Humble
For someone once in charge of his own federal agency and programs receiving billions of dollars in Congressional appropriations, an ambassadorship to France could have been viewed as an embarrassing step down. Something similar could be said about a man of Shriver’s generation going to work for his wife’s nonprofit in the last chapter of an extraordinarily storied career. Sarge seemed to energetically jump into these roles, giving them his all. He was humble in his service to the nation and its people.
Resolve to be humble in service and give your all to any role/position you inhabit.
6) Accepting that Sometimes the Best People Don’t Become President
Shriver dedicated much of his life to public service, making significant inroads in addressing some of the nation’s most troublesome challenges. He was well-respected and beloved by a long and list of national leaders and everyday people. He was a hard worker, innovator, and an expert on the functioning of the various branches of government. And . . . he never even came close to realizing his goal of becoming President of the United States.
Resolve to accept that sometimes the best people for the job don’t actually become President of the United States.
7) Being Guided by Faith
Sarge’s ability to do so all of the above seemed to be rooted in his faith. Being a devout Catholic shaped his approach to life and service. Different people find similar inspiration and a sense of foundation in other religious faith traditions. Beliefs in patriotism, the promise of the Constitution, equality, or other secular principles can also serve as North Stars for many Americans.
Resolve to remain strong in your faith.
(Originally Posted on LinkedIn Pulse on January 5, 2017)