Dispatches From the Changing American Dream: Expanding the National Conversation

Our politicians have chosen to narrow their imaginations, but they can't narrow ours. Even if we can't control how Washington responds to our problems, we still have control over how we respond to them.
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The theme of this year's National Association of Black Journalists Convention (which I spoke at last week) was "The Power of Now: Claiming Your Destiny" -- a theme that was embraced by both the event's speakers and the attendees. Even so, the mood at the gathering was somber.

This is hardly surprising: unlike much of the mainstream media, many of those in attendance have devoted themselves to chronicling the ongoing devastation that the financial crisis continues to wreak across the country. This was a group in touch with the worst aspects of our troubled economy.

Though the national unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, among African Americans it's over 16 percent. For African-American teens the number is a staggering 41 percent. And while median household wealth for whites declined 16 percent from 2005 to 2009, for African Americans it dropped by 53 percent.

But what I sensed at the convention wasn't anger (though that would certainly be justified), but a pervasive feeling that things would not be getting better any time soon. There was still a lot of support for President Obama in the room, but not a lot of faith that, for the foreseeable future, Washington is going to be capable of doing anything meaningful to make life better for the majority of Americans.

Of course, this lack of faith is not confined to black journalists. The gulf between the real concerns of the public and the circus that's been going on in Washington has seldom been so great. In a new USA Today/Gallup poll, only 24 percent of Americans said that most members of Congress should be re-elected; and only 47 percent believe Obama deserves another term.

In the meantime, the deficit-focused debate in Washington has been likened by James Fallows to one "about the moon program in which no one had heard of gravity."

Our economy has slowed down to 1.3 percent growth (far below the sustained 2.5 percent level we need to even have a chance at lowering the unemployment rate), nine states are about to cut unemployment benefits, and, of course, our debt rating has just been downgraded.

So it's no wonder people have lost faith that our broken political system will produce solutions to improve their lives. And as we approach the 2012 election (after, of course, several more manufactured crises about the deficit), the debate is likely to get even further removed from the reality of what's going on in the country. Washington has tuned out the country, and the sentiment is being reciprocated.

The question becomes: what now?

Well, one place to start is with ourselves. Our politicians have chosen to narrow their imaginations, but they can't narrow ours. Even if we can't control how Washington responds to our problems, we still have control over how we respond to them.

The Black Journalists Convention theme is instructive -- it isn't about waiting for our destiny to be given to us, it's about claiming it. And claiming it now.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a dinner in Washington, right as the debt-ceiling debate was reaching its crescendo (or, more accurately, its nadir). The guests included a wide range of Washington insiders, and as the dinner was coming to an end, there had been little in our discussion to be hopeful about.

Glancing across the table at Tim Shriver, head of the Special Olympics, I suggested that before we all trudged out into the night, Tim might be able to offer something to lift our spirits. To do so, Shriver turned to his work with the Special Olympics -- and people's ability to overcome massive challenges.

"I think," he said, "that a lot of political leaders have succumbed to the idea that we're no longer a country of ideals, but a country of interests; that we're not a country of sacrifice, but a country of selfish people. I don't think they are trying to reach out to the people to say, 'you've got a role to play, and we need your help.' In the Special Olympics movement, I ask big things of people every single day. And in asking big things of others, I think we unlock a side of the human experience that is the seat of excitement and enthusiasm... indeed, of the human spirit."

To respond to this need to tap into the human spirit, HuffPost will be launching a new series highlighting outside-the-Beltway leadership of the sort Shriver exemplifies, and which has been in such short supply in recent times in Washington.

Dubbed "The Inspirationals," the series will spotlight -- on video and in written Q&As -- effective, creative and credible leaders across the country who have shown an ability to inspire and bring people together to accomplish things that better their lives and the lives of others. Fittingly, our inaugural Inspirational is Tim Shriver himself, interviewed by Howard Fineman.

In addition, we are expanding our Greatest Person of the Day feature. For the past 10 months, we have been profiling people all across America who are making a difference. They may not be able to fix the political system, but they can have a positive impact on their communities in ways large and small. And they are doing so in imaginative, ingenious, and very American ways.

Starting next month, our Greatest Persons will be culled from local heroes found and profiled by Patch's 856 hyperlocal editors -- allowing us to find and feature even more under-the-radar "Greatest Persons." Of course, you can still nominate the people in your community who have stepped up, refused to give in, and decided to make their small corner of the country a little bit better by emailing greatestperson@huffingtonpost.com.

Lastly, as part of HuffPost's efforts to expand the national conversation beyond the cramped, unimaginative, and unproductive one happening in Washington, we are launching "Dispatches from the Changing American Dream," a project in collaboration with Patch devoted to chronicling both the negative effects of the financial crisis and the creative and innovative ways people all across the country are responding to it. Again, Patch's 856 editors will help give our coverage a hyper-local perspective.

So in addition to stories about college graduates moving back in with their parents because they can't find a job, and stories about foreclosures and our crumbling infrastructure, we will focus on efforts to revitalize -- and even re-imagine -- our communities.

One such effort is being sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art. The 14-month program is called "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream," and is an effort to rethink America's suburbs in the wake of the foreclosure crisis -- and spur dialogue and debate around the subject. The project is "premised on reframing the current crisis as an opportunity," writes curator Barry Bergdoll, "an approach that is in keeping with the fundamental American ethos where challenging circumstances engender innovation and out-of-the-box thinking."

Innovation and out-of-the-box thinking are exactly what we need right now. Among the many tragedies unfolding across the country because of the tectonic shifts going on in our economy is the horrible waste of human resources. We don't just have a surplus of under-utilized workers, we have a surplus of untapped energy and creativity and talent.

So as Washington disconnects, the rest of us need -- more than ever -- to connect. In times of crisis and disruptive change, empathy is the most valuable quality we can nurture if we're going to reclaim our destinies -- and our nation's.

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