Letting Our Actions Speak

Every generation makes an implicit promise to leave their children a better world than they themselves inherited. In America, we have been fortunate to make good on that promise for almost three hundred years.
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The fall is the season for football, foliage and - increasingly - important meetings with important people. Fresh from the folly of summer recesses, when children play and people around the world wrap up their vacations, various prestigious gatherings take place. Last week alone saw the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the inaugural G-20 summit, and the Clinton Global Initiative. In the upcoming weeks, more social innovators will gather at conferences such as The Feast, Pop!Tech and TED, just to name a few.

During these sessions, no shortage of important issues will be addressed. Inspiring speeches will abound. Some agreements will be made, partnerships solidified. And hopefully, change and progress will follow.

Attending these sessions are a growing group of leaders, social innovators, and dedicated public servants who to paraphrase the journalist Juan Williams, "have put their hands in the muck and mire of life and tried to create something of beauty--a better outcome."

Yet in spite of this burgeoning group of change agents or perhaps as a reflection of them, there is no shortage of serious issues that face us today.

Every generation makes an implicit promise to leave their children a better world than they themselves inherited. In America, we have been fortunate to make good on that promise for almost three hundred years.

Yet today, the effects of everything from childhood obesity to climate change conspire to threaten this commitment. Facts now suggest that this may be the first generation of children to live shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives than their parents.

This is despite having more resources (financial and human) and better solutions (with the infrastructure to bring them to scale) than ever before.

Mark Twain once famously remarked, "Actions speak louder than words." This is a sentiment we have all heard and would agree with. But it is the second lesser-known part of Twain's quote, "but seldom ever do" that must give us pause and ask the question "why".

My Grandmother has never attended the Clinton Global Initiative or Pop!Tech. She is not part of the "slow food" movement but for most of her life had a garden from which she fed her family. She has never attended a protest or rally but has voted in every election since she cast her first ballot for FDR. She has never blogged about politics but after losing her husband to World War II, continued writing a dozen of his friends who had no one at home to write to. She is not linked in, does not tweet and you cannot friend her on facebook. Yet she has an unrivaled social network of friends and family who would gladly step in front of a bus for her.

What makes her and others of her generation what Tom Brokaw calls "the greatest" is how ordinary she is. How common her actions were. How unremarkable her life has been. She was not a social innovator or social entrepreneur. Just another citizen doing her part. And that is what has collectively allowed her generation to leave the world a better place for us.

Some would suggest that her times were simpler, ours more complicated. Yet I don't think anyone would trade our recession for her depression. Our wars in Iraq and Afganistan for hers with Germany and Japan. We would not trade our childhood obesity for her polio or TB.

So what of us now? What will be said of each of us as individuals and collectively as a generation? What will be our common acts? Will it be to talk or do? To express dissent or empathy? To focus on only those things that concern us personally or realize that our issues are all connected. Will we continue to focus on the bickering over the suffering or work together on the more complicated task of overcoming?

So let's neither take comfort in the meetings of extraordinary people nor find cynicism in their outcomes. Instead, let's be "ordinary" and put our hands in the muck and mire of life and also create something of beauty. And let's do so by embracing the two seemingly contradictory parts of our heritage - that we are a nation born from equal parts personal responsibility and collective action.

Lincoln once wrote, "We can succeed only by concert. It is not "can any of us imagine better?" but "can we all do better?"

The answer to his question should be "yes". But the answer is ultimately one our children and grandchildren will have to answer for us years from now.

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