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My Fellow Citizens,

The advice I didn’t see coming at last week’s Summit on Race at the LBJ Presidential Library: 

Appreciate the magic of the zigzag

These are the words of Valerie Jarrett, the longest-serving advisor to President Obama. She spoke candidly with Brittany Packnett who called Jarrett her “mentor mom because she is a little bit of both.” This time the questions weren't about race. 

Packnett, co-host of the award-winning podcast, Pod Save the People, first met Valerie Jarrett on the streets of Feguson, Missouri. Brittany’s bio describes her as an “unapologetic educator, organizer, writer and speaker.” Since Ferguson, she has continued her activism by co-founding Campaign Zero to end police violence, writing for national publications and serving as Teach for America’s Vice President of National Community Alliances. President Obama referred to Brittany as someone whose “voice is going to be making a difference for years to come.”

Brittany is just getting started. Valerie has a book that looks back on a long career in public service. 

The conversation between these two women included all the pleasant references to the “sage advice” and “wisdom” of Jarrett’s generation alongside the “energy” and “enthusiasm” of Packnett’s crew. Then Brittany put aside the pleasantries and asked about the “intergenerational conflict” that happens within today’s social movements. 

Young people hear the old-timers talk as though they finished the job. Older activists host events celebrating the movement’s past while young activists continue to march in the streets. The experienced activists hear young people talk as though nothing they did back then matters. How could it? There’s still so much work to be done. 

Valerie’s response included her advice about the zigzag. She reflected on coping with uncertainty and the slow pace of change. She suggested our technological habits convince younger activists to look for results as fast as the next status update. Valerie concluded her remarks saying few things in life go according to plan. 

Long-time activists have seen their work interrupted, delayed and undone. That work still made the bold plans of today’s activists possible. The generation of young people who want to carry this unfinished work forward now has new tools and new styles for organizing themselves, maneuvering through institutions of power, and exposing efforts that mischaracterize them or undermine their accomplishments. Power resides in the combination of these experiences. 

We need a dialogue between what’s old and what’s new so we can fold time between what the movement did then and what’s possible today. That’s the magic of the zigzag. An entrepreneur might call it a pivot. When it's time for our next move, the best move may not be the one we had planned.

We can use our own experiences to dismiss the work of others, or we can use it to strengthen our strategies for the work we all want to see accomplished today.

It’s a little bit like improv. Instead of saying, “no, that will never work,” we all have to find a way to say, “Yes, and…” 

Let's keep thinking in zigzags,

Like idea of working to make problems go away?
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Questions of Civic Proportions

What more can we see when look at the past and the present at the same time?

Join the Conversation

(share your answers in our Learning Studio)

Checks on Executive power are no straight forward proposition.

Throughout the reporting on the Mueller Report, Neal Katyal has shared his thinking when drafting the special counsel regulations in 1999. That team wanted to address what went wrong with the Starr Report during the Clinton administration. The Mueller Report is the first test of those revised regulations. Read Katyal’s initial response to this week’s events in the New Yorker’s “Neal Katyal on Whether the Mueller Report Went Far Enough.” 

Katyal on the question of why Mueller didn't push harder to interview President Trump:

Mueller had to know that, if he tried to subpoena the President, given what the President had been saying, there would have been a fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I think Mueller would have won that fight, but it would have been years down the road, and, if your goal is to try and get the information to the American people and to Congress as quickly as you can, a lengthy court fight is going to put things back.

Our foreign policy doesn’t operate in a domain sepearate from domestic politics.

You may have read about President Jimmy Carter’s Palm Sunday remarks about President Trump and his concern that China is getting ahead of us. Carter pointed back to 1979, and the choices each of the two countries have made in the years that followed. The government and the people of the United States reveal their values when they make decisions about what gets money and what doesn’t. 

A similar mathematical question raised over $1 million for three churches in Louisiana this week. Journalist Yashar Ali’s tweet went viral. He observed that the effort to rebuild Notre Dame would be well funded and asked his followers to match his donation to the three black churches burned down by a racist arsonist. President Trump’s pledge to send money to France prompted quick criticism about sending money abroad while Flint still needs clean drinking water and the people of Puerto Rico still need so much. 


The mile-markers of the movement we celebrate today didn’t look like much at the time.

In Voices of the Movement, Jonathan Capeheart wants to elevate the words of people who experienced the Civil Rights Movement firsthand. With his podcast from the Washington Post, Capeheart asks what the lessons of the past can tell us about where to go from here. Three episodes into a nine-episode series, the conversation seems focused more on the history than the future. There might, however, be an important lesson for all of us in knowing that the guy who smuggled MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” out of the Birmingham jail never looked at the notes he carried out. 

Clarence Jones wanted to talk to Dr. King about fundraising and paying bail for the young people who had been arrested. Dr. King had something else on his mind, so Jones had to figure out the money by himself. 
*The "join the conversation" link at the top of Questions of Civic Proportions will take you to Politicolor's online learning studio. You will need to be a member to access the content, but it's free. Use this button to check it out and request an invite.
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We heard about so many good books over the last couple of weeks. Be sure to follow us on Instagram where we share our current reads. We will also post a round-up in the Learning Studio next week. This community has so many ideas about what you should read next!

We'll have some news about the selected title for next month's online book club too. If you want to turn a few pages ahead to see what might happen next, check out Paul Woodruff's First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea and let me know what you think. 😉

Good Work: The Birmingham Project by Dawoud Bey

Each pair of photos represents fifty years gone. One face represents a life lost while the other asks us to imagine what might have been. Photographer Dawoud Bey wanted to use his art to engage the history of the movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

He also wanted to tell a story about Birmingham today. 

As you look through the 32 portraits (16 pairs), you see men and women, young boys and girls sitting in a church pew. None of those church pews belonged to the 16th Street Baptist Church though.

Everyone who participated in the project lived in Birmingham. Some had even known the victims in 1963 since they were the same age. When Bey approached the minister at the 16th Street Baptist Church about his art project, he received an unexpected response. The minister explained that “we’re not about all that business.”

Bey had to use other historic locations across the city to complete the project. He photographed each person separately and then “paired only after the fact… They had to ‘complete’ each other in some way.” That’s the difference between Bey’s work and the voyeuristic photos that seem to revel in tragedy and violence. The photos work together to present a story with a lifespan.

In the faces Bey photographs, you see the youth lost. That’s the story we know and recall with each anniversary. In the completed pair, you have to consider how the story in Birmingham continues into the present day. 

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