Do You Prioritize Freedom or Safety? by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

 Credit: Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

Credit: Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

Do you prioritize freedom or safety?  What if I asked “do you prioritize lives or guns?” 

Each of these questions leads with and taps into our values.  Depending on how the question is worded, your response is visceral as is your surety of the “right” answer.  And what often follows is a polarizing debate filled with ugliness and hate.  In essence, the conversation ends before it even begins.  We retreat to lick our wounds, regroup with like-minded people, and throw up our hands that common ground is impossible.

This merry-go-round of emotion and reaction is fueled by our current approach to politics and media.  And while it may be the stuff of entertainment, it is not the right environment for effective policy.  The Presidential Leadership Scholars (PLS) program seeks to build an improved environment by selecting a coalition of diverse leaders from different political, industry, and ethnic backgrounds who are committed to solve our world’s most pressing problems.

I was recently selected to join the fourth class of PLS, and our opening module included a whirlwind of speakers across the Clinton and Bush administrations as well as acclaimed business and community leaders.  What struck me most was a deep commitment to our country, whether we were listening to Sylvia Burwell, former Secretary of Health and Human Services and current President of American University, or Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education and current President of the University of North Carolina.  Perhaps the most surprising gem for me was an exercise on value-based decision making with former Director of the U.S. National Economic Council and Lecturer of Economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Keith Hennessey.

Society applauds leaders who hold fast to their values and beliefs despite challenge and opposition.  But, as multiple leaders expressed during our first week of PLS, the issue with making sound policy is most often not about opposing values.  Instead, it is about prioritizing multiple values within a constrained environment.  Jonathan Haidt explores this conundrum in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.  If you’re like me, the idea that we should be willing to compromise our values makes you uncomfortable, especially if you pride yourself on following a strong moral compass.  But, as Haidt says, morality, “binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.”

The premise of PLS is that if you are a leader committed to making the world a better place, you must be willing to listen to and learn from those with opposing viewpoints to create sustainable change.  In the short time since our class began, I have pushed myself to be more direct and outspoken about my beliefs and experiences as a leader and woman of color raised in a lower-middle class military family.  There have been times where my experiences have had a positive impact on my fellow classmates, and other times when I’ve been confronted with and embarrassed by my own biases and assumptions about others.  My experience to date has been powerful both professionally and personally, and most of the reason why is that I’m being forced to re-examine and question how my values and beliefs enhance and hinder my relationships.

One of my PLS colleagues came up to me after witnessing an emotional exchange between a fellow classmate and me.  She told me she didn’t know what to say, and she didn’t know who was right or wrong.  But she did know that both sides had experienced pain and perhaps acknowledging that fact was a good place to start.

When you listen to Emma Gonzalez speak about losing her classmates, you may not agree with her position.  You may not agree with her word choice.  But we can all agree that she, her classmates and their families have experienced pain that we hope no American will have to suffer.

My time with PLS has led to a deeper appreciation of the Everett Dirksen quote- “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”  Regardless of where you stand on the gun debate or any other polarizing issue, can you try something for me?  Can you find someone that you know with an opposing view who is willing to have a respectful conversation with you about why she thinks differently on this issue?  Can you commit to listen and seek to understand his viewpoint?  You have no obligation to change your mind, but hopefully you are flexible enough to open your heart.

5 Ways To Charge Into 2018 by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

 Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

This year has been incredibly tumultuous to say the least.  At times, I wasn’t sure if I was in an episode of 24 or Homeland.  The very fabric of our democracy often feels like it is in tatters with each thread pulled taut by fear, hatred, arrogance, and uncertainty.  There is a virus of hopelessness and indifference spreading through many of us.  We want off this crazy train, but we don’t know how.  The challenges are overwhelming and increasing rifts among us roadblock thoughtful solutions.

As we prepare to close out 2017, I wanted to share 5 “To Dos” that may help you recharge and charge into 2018.

1.      What To Hear: Trailblazers.FM podcast 
Trailblazers.FM podcast recently celebrated its 100th episode and explores the stories of successful black leaders.  That’s 100 stories about inspiring black entrepreneurs, creatives, and corporate leaders.  The Trailblazers.FM mission is to highlight the wisdom, resources and tools of today's most accomplished everyday trailblazers, to help listeners gain the know-how, confidence and motivation needed to blaze their own trails.  They are the “bright spots” who achieved despite the systems that perpetuate disparities in so many of our communities.  And they are a reminder that against all odds, yet still we rise.

2.      What To Do: Be Active
Before you crawl into a ball with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, reflect on the movements that have snowballed this year.  Nasty Women  from the Women’s March helped catalyze #MeToo.  Black Lives Matter inspired fearless leaders to #TakeAKnee.  And in November, we elected a wave of firsts.  When you feel overwhelmed find something, no matter how big or small, and get engaged!  You don’t have to wait your turn, or wait on the leaders in power, or wait until you know all the answers.  You just have to be willing to speak up and stand up.

3.      Who To Follow: Michael Skolnik
Michael and I met last year as RWJF and Policy Link Health Equity Ambassadors.  He’s one of those interesting individuals who have a pulse on movements, and his business, WeAreSoze, creates campaigns about compassion, authenticity and equity.  If you are inspired to act, but aren’t quite sure where to focus your energy, Michael shares trends and issues that weave together popular culture, politics, and policy.   

4.      What To Read: The Seventh Sense
What is so unnerving about the last year is that few of the tried and true tactics of the past seem to be working.  In fact, at times these approaches seem to worsen already challenging situations.  The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks is a dense but illuminating overview on how networks have shifted the base of power globally.  And in case you haven’t guessed it, in the age of networks, each of us individually hold unprecedented power in changing the systems around us.  The only question is whether you plan to be a passive or active participant in the change that we seek.  (NOTE: I’m assuming as a loyal follower of Shared Roots, you’ve already read my book Just Change: How to Collaborate for Lasting Impact which shares the stories of social change leaders across the country.  If not, add it to your reading list!)

5.      What To Remember:  The American Dream
According to historian James Truslow Adams, the American Dream means that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.  The American Dream is our ethos, rooted in our Declaration of Independence that states all of us are created equal with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But the American Dream has always been more feeling than fact, and surprisingly that is its unifying power.  We are living in a time where a large swath of our nation no longer believes in the American Dream, and it is creating an emotional backlash akin to children believing there is no Santa Claus.  As we collectively navigate through our shared identity crisis- who are we and what do we stand for?- remember that we have been here before.   What makes our country great is that in times of tumult and crisis we rise up and we demand our dream.  We demand to marry who we love regardless of gender.  We demand health care regardless of socioeconomic status.  We demand civil rights regardless of skin color.  And while our country is always a work in progress, together we push the arc of our democracy towards justice.

Happy holidays and see you in 2018!