The following is a conversation between Anne-Marie Slaughter, Chief Executive Officer of New America, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Philanthropy can only be as effective as the ecosystem in which it operates, whether that’s a community, the nation, or the world, and those ecosystems are under tremendous stress at the moment.
So, to help provide us some context to better understand what is happening. It’s a pleasure to have with us a person who’s a master of connecting dots that help explain where we are. She’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, author, professor, and the CEO of New America, an action tank dedicated to renewing the promise of America.
Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Anne-Marie!
Anne-Marie: It’s my pleasure.
The pandemic absolutely points to existing inequities and exacerbates them in ways that are very important to understand as we try to come out of this.
Denver: Well, there are a lot of dots to be connected, and I’ve tried to put them into 10 separate frames. So, let’s get started with Topic No. 1, and that would be the connection between coronavirus and George Floyd. Now, the reporting has been first, the pandemic in March, followed by the killing of George Floyd in late May. Two separate, sequential events. Do you see them connected in any way?
Anne-Marie: Very much so. We’ve actually heard it referred to as the “twin pandemics” — the pandemic of COVID-19 and the pandemic of systemic racism. Although the systemic racism is not new, it is simply that the murder of George Floyd, the brazen eight-minute horrific murder of George Floyd, brought that into our focus.
But the two are deeply connected in a number of ways. One is simply that people were home and watching that video. In other words, we have seen horrific videos before, but there would be protests and then things would die down. This time, we were all sort of locked down; we see this video, and then people have time to go to demonstrations. I did not go to Washington or New York because I’m over 60 and I’m not doing that, although family members did. But I went in Princeton, and I supported all the people in my organization who did that.
So, at one level, you have this intersection of something that’s happened before happening at a time where people can see it and people can act. But I think the deeper connection is that even before George Floyd, the African-American, Latinx, and others in my organization are looking at the COVID numbers — and I’m looking at the COVID numbers — and seeing the statistical inequities.
So you are seeing much higher deaths and infection rates and death rates in Black and Brown communities. You are seeing them not get the same treatment. But you’re also seeing that the 40% of essential workers who have to be on the front lines are disproportionately Black and Brown.
So, the pandemic absolutely points to existing inequities and exacerbates them in ways that are very important to understand as we try to come out of this.
Denver: Do you think that part of the nonchalant attitude, if I can call it that, among some of our leaders, is because it was affecting the Brown and Black communities more than the white community?
Anne-Marie: I do. I absolutely do. I think that if you had the same death rates in the white community, particularly in many more conservative states… but even liberal states, absolutely you would see this as the number one priority. And a good example is AIDS, which was killing millions of people around the world and huge numbers of people in the United States. And for a long time, people sort of said, “Well, those are gay people, so, effectively, that’s not touching me, and that’s not a political priority. “
Denver: And another example would be drugs. When it was in the inner city, it was a criminal activity and a moral failing, and when it got out to the suburbs, we had a national problem.
Denver: Topic No. 2. It would be lack of a global response to COVID-19. I had Gayle Smith of the ONE Campaign on the show recently. She remarked she was disappointed that there had not been more of a global response to the pandemic and for a virus of all things, for God’s sake, which knows no borders whatsoever. And the reporting does seem to reflect this. It’s country by country, nation-state by nation-state. What’s your take on this Anne-Marie?
Anne-Marie: I think there are a number of reasons. Perhaps the easiest one to point to is the United States is not playing its traditional role of catalyst — leader, yes, but catalyst, even more.
So if you look at Ebola, that was going global very quickly. People were really frightened. Barack Obama was right there, and Gayle Smith was in his administration, and they were all over it. And they weren’t just all over it in terms of: “What are we going to do in the United States?” but they were mobilizing an African response and a global response.
And really, global cooperation since 1945 has largely been driven by the United States, by Western Europe, by Europe, then the EU, and then our other allies. And when we’re missing and the EU is deeply, internally preoccupied… China has mounted some global response with its allies or countries it’s engaged with, its partners, but it is not out there working through the United Nations, through the WHO. So that’s one important reason, that we’re not there as a catalyst, and it really does make a difference.
But another is that these institutions are — in a bad way. It’s been amazing to me that you don’t ever even hear about the United Nations or the National Security Council. And again, that’s partly the US isn’t there, but partly we’re almost a hundred years after 1945 when these decisions were created. And so, part of why I think you’re not seeing a global response is we’ve lost the muscles and the institutions that can do that quickly.
Denver: Well, that leads us into Topic No. 3, which is a crisis of institutional legitimacy. And boy, so many people are wondering as to whether these institutions, whether they be national or international, are really up to the challenges of the modern world. And can they be reformed, or do they need to be replaced entirely? What’s your view?
Anne-Marie: We could have an entire hour-long conversation on that question, but they definitely need to be reformed because, again, they reflect a world of almost a century ago. And of course, they’ve evolved over the decades. We’ve seen some expansion, and we’ve seen some new institutions. The G20 is relatively recent, and some of the newer institutions, particularly in Asia, that China has been building, are recent.
But if you just look at the Security Council and the five permanent members of China and Russia and the United States and France and Britain… France and Britain? Really? Where’s Germany? Where’s Japan? Where’s the EU? And of course, no African states, no Latin American states. This can’t hold. I’m not sure we can reform them. We’ve tried, and there are a million political reasons why it foundered, but our best shot was the early aughts when you had Kofi Annan really pushing, frankly, a lot of goodwill globally. Now, you’re back in an era of great power competition.
And my prescription is that we take those institutions and kind of flatten them and make them the hubs of larger coalitions that engage university presidents, CEOs, civic leaders, mayors, governors, but that we start to think about problem-solving coalitions where ” We got a pandemic. What do we need? Who are the people we need on board, and how are we going to organize them?” And you would hope you could use an existing institution as a hub, but that would be a different function than saying it’s going to solve it. It’s essentially moving from a hierarchical world to a flat- or networked world, which you and I’ve talked about before.
Denver: It’s funny that you mentioned about the Security Council because I just noticed recently that the Dow 30 has changed — three fell out and three new were admitted to the Dow 30. So every other institution recognizes that you can’t keep France and Britain there forever.
Anne-Marie: No, but try telling them that.
In some ways, the pandemic may perform that function of — depending how long it continues — of so changing the world as we experience it that it will give us the space to come together in different ways, and either overhaul or create new institutions that really can address these problems.
Denver: Oh yes, that’s for sure. The other thing about these multilateral institutions… I, every once in a while, look back to their founding, and I look at them now, and they’re doing so much more now than they were ever intended to do. This has been like mission creep, about 90% of their budgets were things which were never there at the start, and you begin to wonder how that impacts their effectiveness.
Anne-Marie: Yes. Although there was a set of institutions created after World War I and then the ones we have now created after World War II. We really can’t afford a World War III. In some ways, the pandemic may perform that function of — depending how long it continues — of so changing the world as we experience it that it will give us the space to come together in different ways, and either overhaul or create new institutions that really can address these problems.
We have to have a technologist at every problem-solving table, and that means in government… somebody who thinks differently about how we can solve these problems, who thinks about user-centered design.
Denver: That’s a very interesting perspective.
Well, that kind of feeds into Topic No. 4, which is technology. You have done so much work such as the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative, and it’s part of this effort to decentralize technology solutions for social impact challenges. How do you think these crises are going to impact or even accelerate that work at New America?
Anne-Marie: Well, the pandemic is certainly forcing us all online, and it is radically accelerating the transition to the true digital age. If you think of the industrial age to the digital age, we’ve been talking about this now since the 1990s.
But, again, the Industrial Revolution starts somewhere in 1810. By 1830, you’ve got railroads, and you don’t yet have electricity. So, it’s a long process. We’re seeing that collapsed, and people are moving to digital jobs, to being able to work at home. That creates though its own huge crisis because people who cannot do that are getting left further and further behind, and no amount of just upskilling is going to do it. We really need an overhaul of how we create jobs, really good jobs.
So there’s a lot of work around moving people to the true digital age, and lots and lots and lots of jobs that haven’t yet been created but you can already see them. The ones that I’m particularly interested in are a whole lot of care jobs; digital tutors, just to take one. People who can help kids– who will probably continue to stay home part of the time– in schools. So that the school will be partly in the classroom, partly in the community, partly at home, and you’ll need a whole army of teachers and teachers’ assistants and tutors. Just as now, when you go to the doctor, you’ve got the doctor at the pinnacle of the hierarchy, but you see her assistant, you see the therapist… there’s just an army of people. So there’s a lot of work around that.
There’s also, I think, again, this is where equity issues really come into play. Without affordable, accessible high-speed broadband, you’re not going to be able to learn, work, talk to your doctor, or do anything else. And so, the pandemic forces us to see that because we’re all online right now, and kids who can’t get online can’t go to school. But that’s just, again, sort of an intensification of that large problem because technology is radically, unequally distributed. So there again, New America expects to be doing a lot of work.
And the last thing I’ll say is we have to have a technologist at every problem-solving table, and that means in government. And we’ll know that we’re really making progress when deputy secretaries of cabinet departments, like the deputy secretary of the department of labor, or health and human services, or the state department, is a technologist, somebody who thinks differently about how we can solve these problems, who thinks about user-centered design. Like “Let’s start with the customer. Let’s figure out…”
Denver: A radical idea, that is!
Anne-Marie: A person who’s supposed to be getting these government services. Let’s start there. Let’s see how this works. Let’s use data to see whether or not we’re improving. That’s the software mindset. It’s human-centered design and data and delivery. And I think that has to really thread throughout government and civic organizations if we’re going to be the problem solvers we need to be.
The countries that have done the best — and many of them have been run by women, but I think it’s too simplistic to say we need women leaders — but they are people who, in the first place, they have the trust of their citizens, and they have the trust of their citizens because they do tell the truth.
…it’s this balance always between: you’re at the center and you’re in charge, but you’re truthful and you’re adaptable, and you’re willing to delegate and marshal the energies of others at the same time.
Denver: Speaking about civic organizations, I have noted how few nonprofit organizations have someone with a technology background on their board. It is really frightening. And you look at these boards, and there used to be a time where we didn’t have a finance person there. And then we got a finance person there. Well, it is certainly time that we get a technology person on the boards of these nonprofits so they can really have the kind of impact and scale that they need to have.
Takes us to Topic No. 5, which is leadership. What kind of leadership do we need in a moment like this? And where have you seen that kind of leadership being displayed across the globe?
Anne-Marie: So let’s start at the national level. The countries that have done the best — and many of them have been run by women, but I think it’s too simplistic to say we need women leaders — but they are people who, in the first place, they have the trust of their citizens, and they have the trust of their citizens because they do tell the truth.
So Angela Merkel got out early and said, “70% of Germans are likely to get this virus.” She didn’t say it’s going to magically disappear. She didn’t try to take credit for fighting it. She said, “I’m a scientist. These are the facts.” Boom! And that may not have been news people wanted to hear, but they trusted the government much more because they were hearing something they could ground, they could research. So there’s a kind of combination of being direct and truthful and not sugarcoating anything.
And then there’s the quality of empathy, particularly for those who are most affected, and an ability to marshal that empathy so that you’re saying, for instance, “You’re not wearing masks. This is not about you. You’re wearing masks to avoid infecting others. And if we all do that, then you’ll be safer, too.” But this ability to marshal solidarity, which is something that is sorely lacking in the United States right now.
And then I think also an ability to really roll with constantly changing information. You’re going to be making mistakes. You’re going to hear that you should engage in this practice, and then you’re going to discover, “No. Actually, that didn’t work so well.” So you’ve got to be flexible and adaptable and willing to admit when you’ve made a mistake. You’ve got to devolve responsibility in some cases. You’ve got scientists. You’ve got lots of mayors and governors who are really working, and again, whatever their titles are in their countries.
So it’s this balance always between: you’re at the center and you’re in charge, but you’re truthful and you’re adaptable, and you’re willing to delegate and marshal the energies of others at the same time.
Denver: You have spent a lot of time in the academic world at Princeton and Harvard and Chicago. Are we preparing the right kind of leaders to meet these moments? Or are we preparing leaders for a world that no longer exists?
Anne-Marie: You always have such great questions.
So the first point goes back to the topic we were just discussing about technology. You should not be able to come out of a school of public affairs or anything that says it’s preparing you as a leader without knowing at least as much about technology as we’d expect you to know about economics. You’ve got to take microeconomics, macroeconomics. You got to understand cost benefit analysis. You got to know how to talk to the economists. Same would be true with a certain amount of laws. But you have to have at least that much knowledge of technology, and you’d better have some technologists on your speed dial just as you would…
Denver: Just to keep up with the changes.
Anne-Marie: Exactly. So that’s one place I think we really are not preparing leaders well enough. And New America and the Ford Foundation had been working to build a network of public interest technology universities. So we have now 36 universities across the country who are committing to building certificates and degrees and courses to enable people who want to be leaders and problem solvers to have that knowledge.
I think more broadly, though, we still are probably teaching people to lead at the top rather than the center, that we still have this vision — you think CEO and you think Fortune 500 company, and you imagine the org chart and the CEO’s way up at the top. And then you have layers and layers and layers.
I think about networks, I think about leading from the center, and I want to be teaching people “How do you lead when you’re a hub?” You have power because you have all the knowledge, and you have the most connections… more than anybody else does, but you can’t command things to happen. And lots of things are going to happen that you don’t anticipate and you didn’t ask for, but how do you serve that way? Because it’s a very different set of skills that you…stuff comes up in, you didn’t expect, or maybe you didn’t think you wanted and you think “What can I do with that? How can I turn that to good? How can I mobilize? How can I unlock other people’s energies?”
I think there are a growing number of leaders who understand that that’s the way we have to lead, but I would not say that’s penetrated leadership academies, schools of public affairs, law schools, business schools, the places we train our leaders.
Denver: And just on that last observation of yours, which I so agree with, is that you’re finding, or at least I have found a few collaborative leaders, who have a different way of announcing goals. And they announce the goals without having the answers. They’re actually almost enlisting and engaging people to say, “I know where we want to go, but I don’t know how to get there.” And then everybody says, “Oh, you need me!” And they get engaged as opposed to just saying, “Oh, they’ve got it all figured out. I guess I’ll get my task.” And that just changes everything.
Denver: Topic No. 6. I’m sorry these are so big, but you’re so good! National security in a post-pandemic world.
Boy, this used to be almost be entirely defined by nation-states, but this pandemic is just the latest indication that it is so much more than that. How do you believe we need to redefine national security in this age?
Anne-Marie: This is such an important issue and a hard one. Because we traditionally had talked about national security, international relations, so any kind of threat between one nation to another… Let’s take nuclear weapons as an example. Nuclear weapons have been the dangers of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, or now Russia, or between Russia and China. We think about individual powers getting nuclear weapons and what they’ll do with them. And so then, India and Pakistan, and then of course, Iran– those are problems that continue.
So whatever you do with national security, you can’t pretend they’re not there. They still are there, and if anybody used a nuclear weapon, we could still blow up the world many times over. But there’s this larger issue of nuclear proliferation and the idea that you could get to 30 States, and what would that do to the way people would have to live all around the world? And that’s a very different set of concerns because then you start thinking, “Well, who’s manufacturing materials that could be used for nuclear proliferation?” Well, then you get to companies in various ways. And then you start thinking about “Who’s evading border controls?”
So I think about national or international problems and global problems. And the global problems are the problems that affect us every day, how we live. So the pandemic is the best example you could ask for. Climate change is another. Cybersecurity is another. Trafficking in people, which you might not think so much, but actually it can undermine all sorts of labor markets and create all sorts of bad things. These are issues that people are more likely to think of as crime than national security. But they’re global issues.
My perception is that the people in charge in foreign policy still, they talk about global issues or they might call them transnational. And they’ll say, “These big existential problems — climate change, pandemics — these are huge,” but they’re trained to think “OK. I got to call up the foreign minister of this country and negotiate a deal.” They are not — and it goes back to the conversation we were just having — they’re not trained to think: “I need the 7,000 mayors in Mayor Bloomberg’s Global Covenant of Mayors who are fighting climate change.” Or, “How am I going to mobilize the pharmaceutical companies, and the NGOs, and the universities, and the scientists to think about how we’re going to fight COVID if we were really going to do it globally?”
Now there are scientific and medical networks, and the companies are actually collaborating on vaccines and other ways, but that’s not what the foreign ministries are thinking about. And it’s not what the UN is thinking about. So again, we need a lot of evolution here.
Denver: We’re locked into our habits, and people would really stand to benefit to take a moment and think before just picking up that phone and calling the foreign minister. And it is so complex, and there are so many permutations. It is tough.
Takes us to Topic No. 7, which is the impact of the lockdown and working from home. And I should add for those who are fortunate enough to do so, this has really been an extraordinary time to stop for a moment and reevaluate the value of different kinds of work, of gender roles, of care, how parents apparently do not make very good teachers. We do know that. What have been some of the things that have struck you?
Anne-Marie: So before I answer you, I have to just say my best friend from college was a first-grade teacher, and then she’s taught up and down elementary school and then was principal of an elementary school. But early on, when our kids were little, we would call her because she knew what was going on, and her argument was always “Leave it to the teacher. You are not the teacher.” And she was right. There can be homeschooling, of course. I’m not saying there aren’t parents who can be great teachers, but, by and large, when it’s your kid, it’s better off when it’s mediated.
Denver: I talked to a lot of people about that, and I say, “How are things going?” “Great. Great.” I said, “How’s the homeschooling?” They say, “Not so good.”
Anne-Marie: So let’s posit here that we still have roughly 50% of people who can’t work from home, 40% to 50%. And again, we’ll never get to a place where everybody can work online, but most jobs will have a more online component, and most non-physical jobs should then be parts of careers that lead you to jobs where you’re going to be working partially online, partially in the office.
Think how much better it would be if everyone who has had to be in the office from nine-to-five or much later than that, five days a week, six days a week, seven days a week…suddenly is in the office half that much time? Half that much time. The rest of the time, you’re at home, and you can schedule your work as you need to do. This is what academics have always had. It’s been far better because your kid is sick? You can stay home that day. You need to go to a teacher conference? You work from home that day, and there you can do it. It creates space and flexibility, which is exactly what parents need.
But it’s not just parents. It’s amazing. All these surveys now, people are saying, “I can get up and work out in the middle of the day. I can take a walk. I can spend some time with my kid when he or she comes home from school,” assuming we’re back to actually coming home from school. That’s a better world, and it’s also a more local world, which is really better as well.
So many of us, particularly people who live in the suburbs, use their “hometown” as the place you go on the weekends. It’s not where you work, and yet many of the people we need to care for, when you think about our care communities, you can do telemedicine; you can do tele-all-sort-of-things. You need a neighborhood. You need somebody who’s there who can shop for you as well.
So I see a lot of really positive developments coming out of the pandemic because the pandemic is proving what people like me have been arguing for a decade– that we could work more flexibly, more on our own time, more from home, again, not a hundred percent. I believe that there’s…and part of the value of being home is that it’s a contrast with the office. Everything is one. Work never ends, but home never ends. And you start to feel kind of surreal… anyway, but I think half and half would be perfect, or whatever the mix is for individual businesses.
I’m aware that if I were an African-American woman or a Latino or an Indian American woman or others, I would have been censoring myself far, far more. So that for people like me to complain “Oh gee, we can’t speak freely,” there are many, many people of color saying “We never could speak freely. And now we’re speaking freely, and we are telling you we don’t like what you say, and you’re screaming.”
Denver: I also see an increase in accountability because people who are working at home, they just: “I’ll be accountable!” Because it’s worth the trade-off to have this kind of freedom and flexibility. And trust me, and I am trusted to get this work done by the time you need it, and a great job.
Topic No. 8 is in the intolerant climate we’re in where people are becoming reluctant to express their views on issues and fear of being attacked– the cancel culture, if you will. You were among the 153 who signed the letter in Harper’s in July calling for justice and open debate. Share with us your views on this.
Anne-Marie: This is tricky territory. I thought hard about signing that letter because on the one hand, I’m very aware that as a privileged white woman, I have not had to self-censor that much. I have had to. I’m a woman. So in particular, in the national security issues where there’s lots of men, I often will not say what I really think.
But I’m aware that if I were an African-American woman or a Latino or an Indian American woman or others, I would have been censoring myself far, far more. So that for people like me to complain “Oh gee, we can’t speak freely,” there are many, many people of colors saying “We never could speak freely. And now we’re speaking freely, and we are telling you we don’t like what you say, and you’re screaming.” I very much do…I understand that.
And a part of that letter was calling for much greater diversity and much more open debate. I want somebody in my organization to say, “You know? What you just said was insensitive or really demonstrated that you come from such a place of privilege or whatever it is.” And I don’t mind if it’s a tough debate. I cut my teeth at the University of Chicago, and it was tough.
There’s a big difference between really encouraging and welcoming and fostering the kind of debate that lets people say what they’ve long thought but never dared to say, and a culture in which if you say the wrong thing, you’re ruled out…I still believe that the best answer to speech is more speech.
Denver: It’s all you did!
Anne-Marie: That’s right. It’s all you did.
But the reason I signed the letter is there’s a big difference between really encouraging and welcoming and fostering the kind of debate that lets people say what they’ve long thought but never dared to say, and a culture in which if you say the wrong thing, you’re ruled out. And in a world of social media, that can also very quickly, in fact, have consequences beyond just being shunned; although being shunned is pretty terrible. You can lose your job.
And so, again, I grew up in the Cold War, and I studied the Soviet Union. I studied dictatorships. The first thing they do is to shut down the ability to speak. And so, I still believe that the best answer to speech is more speech. I believe that it’s important to recognize when speech is hurtful, and I believe it’s important, particularly like on a campus, to have guidelines because that’s not the public square. But I am very nervous and I know countless people — tons of white men but not only white men, I know African-Americans who differ from other African-Americans — are too scared to say what they think, and that I think is very dangerous.
We can’t flinch from our past. We have to really look at it, and say — well, for large numbers of Americans, Frederick Douglas’ 4th of July speech — we’re celebrating liberty, justice, equality, democracy, and we have enslaved people. We’ve got to face that. But facing that isn’t to say we are all evil. It isn’t to say that there’s nothing good there. It is to say you face it, you change it, and you renew the best in it. You renew your best self. You renew your best traditions as a nation, and above all, you commit to your highest ideals.
Denver: You’re so right. Healthy conflict is healthy. That’s why they call it healthy conflict. And the thing is when people don’t talk, those feelings are going to fester inside. And they’re going to manifest themselves in some other time and some other place when they could have been addressed then and there, but people are afraid to do it, which takes us to Topic No. 9.
You’ve been working away on a new book. It’s titled Renewal, most appropriate for the CEO of an organization that is dedicated to renewing the promise of America. If you can, give us the central message of the book and maybe a sneak preview.
Anne-Marie: So I just sent in the first draft a couple of weeks ago and heading for revisions, but we’re hoping it comes out next spring.
The central message of the book is that renewal is in between revolution and reform. It’s not revolution; it’s not: destroy everything and put something new in its place. But it’s deeper and more sweeping than reform. And that it’s a profound, psychological, physical — you think of a renovation — and spiritual process.
It requires radical honesty about who you are and where you’ve been. And in the book, I linked my own personal experiences of renewal with where I think the nation needs to go. And personally, it means accepting that you’re not going to change completely. Like there’s nothing on earth that’s going to make me stop liking dessert. It’s not going to happen, but can I learn to eat in more healthy ways? I’m using a silly sort of lighthearted example.
Take how I manage. I’m always going to be a person probably who’s a little bit late and has too much on the agenda, but can I learn how to hear people better? Can I really face my own thoughts and face them really honestly? The central message of therapy is always “If you can’t name it, you can’t change it.” And that is what the country needs to do as well.
And this is important. We do need to look at our past, and I say this as someone who grew up in Charlottesville, and I was Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, which was at theWoodrow Wilson School. We can’t flinch from our past. We have to really look at it, and say — well, for large numbers of Americans, Frederick Douglas’ 4th of July speech — we’re celebrating liberty, justice, equality, democracy, and we have enslaved people. We’ve got to face that. But facing that isn’t to say we are all evil. It isn’t to say that there’s nothing good there. It is to say you face it, you change it, and you renew the best in it. You renew your best self. You renew your best traditions as a nation; and above all, you commit to your highest ideals.
So New America is renewing the promise of America. And you think about how Thomas Jefferson’s words, even though Thomas Jefferson himself was racist, but his words inspired Frederick Douglas, and they inspired Martin Luther King, and they inspired Susan B. Anthony, and on and on. So it is really a manifesto for change, a process of change that involves taking risks. It involves being resilient and radically facing our flaws. And then it involves a recommitment to our best selves. And it ends with a discussion of what the world could be like in 2026, on the 250th event.
Denver: Absolutely. 250. I can’t wait to read it. And would it be fair to say that you think a lot of this renewal is going to happen at the local level?
Anne-Marie: It is. I think it has to because we need to rebuild trust. And I’m thinking about this right now. I’m a Democrat; the Republican convention is on, and I can just decry what people are saying and I can disagree. But we’re not going to renew this country unless we find a way to come back to what it was when I was growing up, where I was a Democrat and we had friends who were Republicans, and we really disagreed, but we did not think they were the devil. And so yes, I think that’s got to be locally.
Denver: Our politics have become our mega identity. They’re not just one thing. They are everything in terms of who we are and what we watch and what we believe.
And finally, many people have either picked up a new interest or immersed themselves in an existing one during this lockdown. For you, it would be identifying bird songs. Share with us an interesting aspect of this avocation, and maybe describe a bird song you’ve learned about.
Anne-Marie: I think you know me better than I know myself. You have combed everything I’ve written in various places. But yes, I have become a passionate birder. I loved birds before, and my kids will tell you that I’ve talked to the birds at the feeder forever. And I’ve always loved birds.
Denver: Crazy mom.
Anne-Marie: Crazy mom. But, yes. I’m home and I’m walking. I started a life list. I’m adding birds. I’ve discovered that there’s a great bird preserve — several — right here in Princeton. I’ve lived here for 20 years and I did not know that. And what I learned, the first thing you learn, if you get serious about birding, is that it’s “bird listening,” not birdwatching– that really, you hear the bird and then you try to find the bird. Not that that’s easy, and I’ve spent hours chasing through underbrush trying to find the bird.
One of the things I’ve learned is also that your ear does not hear high pitch sound well. So you think it’s in front of you, and you go ahead and then you’d hear it behind you.
Denver: Oh, wow! That’s interesting.
Anne-Marie: It’s interesting. You swear that it’s right in that bush over there, and you go over and then it’s behind you. But…
Denver: Do you use an app?
Anne-Marie: I do use apps. Typically, what I do is I hear the bird song and I’m good enough now that I can… I think that might be a Baltimore Oriole. And then I google “Oriole” and I go to the Cornell site, which is just a fantastic site, and they have the sound, and I’ll play it. And occasionally, if you get it right, the bird comes towards you because they think you’re a bird! You’re sitting there… which is actually bad behavior among birders because you can really upset some poor bird who thinks you’re in their territory.
But I would say… there are lots of songs. Right now is the season of the Goldfinch because the thistles are out and Goldfinches love thistles, and they’re so beautiful. They’re like little bits of yellow confetti, and they fly in a very loopy way, and you see them all over, and you hear these high-pitch notes. And so I love that. Wherever I walk now, I hear Goldfinches.
But I’ll tell you the sparrows, of course, are the humblest in the Bible. The Sparrow is these little brown birds. My husband says there are red birds, there are blue birds, there are brown birds. But the Song Sparrow has an absolutely beautiful song, and there are song sparrows everywhere. Birders actually do — I don’t know, I’m forgetting the word — “sonograms” of the sound of the bird. And so it’s like if there’s two introductory notes and then a trill, and then it goes up… and once you… there are song sparrows everywhere, and they’re such a beautiful song. And we need uplift at this moment and for me, it means…
For me, it is being somewhere and suddenly realizing the bushes and trees around me are alive, and if I am still enough and centered enough, and I’m listening hard enough and looking hard enough, I will find my bird.
Denver: Uplifting…you know, one other thing, too, that I’m just listening to you, too, it does also sound like in order to go fast, you really need to slow down, and you have to become centered, and you have to be still. You have found this way to express it, but I think it’s a really healthy message for everybody out there, whether they listen to bird songs or not. We all need to do that right around now.
Anne-Marie: I think that’s exactly right. And the people who love trout fishing have always said, “The reason I love it is because I’m still. I’m concentrated. I’m not thinking about things. I’m just out there. I’m in a beautiful place, and I’m trying to outwit a fish.” And for me, it is being somewhere and suddenly realizing the bushes and trees around me are alive, and if I am still enough and centered enough, and I’m listening hard enough and looking hard enough, I will find my bird.
Denver: You know, the interdependence of all these issues, which is really the only way to fully understand the events of today, is captured so well on the New America website. Tell us about your website and maybe some of the trending topics you have up there.
Anne-Marie: So, yes. I welcome everyone listening to come to the New America website. You’ll find a lot of things. For one thing, if you are a parent, if you’re involved with children or education in any way — from babies all the way through — you will find a wealth of materials from our education program on going back to school, teaching, community learning, things for teachers, things for parents. If you are thinking about how to change work habits, you will find in the Better Life Lab regular conversations about work and life.
And I would say most important, and it’s a good place to end, we are committing to focus our work on equity, and particularly racial equity. We are dedicated to renewing the promise of America, and the promise of America cannot be renewed without finally, not just grappling with but finding a way to be created equal. I don’t want to say solving it because it makes it sound so trivial, but race is at the heart of the American promise. And that is where you’ll find equity issues up and down the website, and more and more over the next three to five years. And going forward, we want to look at everything through the lens of: Does the outcome of this policy or this solution contribute to racial equity or to racial inequity? And other kinds of equity as well.
Denver: That is absolutely fantastic. Well, thank you, Anne-Marie, for being here today to share these insights. It is always such a delight to speak with you.
Anne-Marie: Likewise. Just a great conversation.
Anne-Marie: Thank you!
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