Commentary: Take the opportunity to make America good

Editor’s note: This Commentary is based on keynote remarks presented last month at the 2020 Impact Delaware Conference, hosted by the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement.

By Tom Sheridan

President John F. Kennedy once remarked that “when written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters: One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

Tom Sheridan

We can’t ignore the fact that we are living in a time of crisis, with COVID-19, racial injustice, the undermining of democracy and economic instability. But, as citizens, the question for many of us is, what can we do about it? Will we seize the opportunities in this crisis and demand the changes we know are needed — or will we balk? The answer is that there is an opportunity to continue making America and its promise real in your lives and in the soul of the nation.

These questions raise some hard truths, but confronting the hard truths is necessary if we believe that from crisis comes opportunity.

First, this is the history of our country. It defines the unique experiment we call “America” and has since our founding days. A tea party disrupted a colony, and a nation was born. Look to history, and you will see that it is only from dark and disruptive moments that the most transformative and progressive chapters in our history are born.

My own experience as a professional advocate for 30 years is more recent evidence that we are always progressing toward better, but we make our biggest advances after we’ve seen the worst. I chronicle some of these inspiring stories in my book, “Helping the Good Do Better.”

The book has one driving message: “Good” has to get in the fight because, when we don’t, the obvious happens — the “bad” wins. The “good” I speak of are the millions of Americans from every walk of life, from every political, religious and cultural persuasion, people who volunteer, serve on boards and donate to charity. It is this group of Americans that unites us every day and – I believe – can save us from the darkness we’re living in.

If there is one action “good citizens” must use, it is the power of voting.

Over the last three decades, one thing has become clear to anyone paying attention — elections have consequences.

Upholding democracy requires a commitment between citizens to act collectively for the sake of their community. When that commitment fails, social unrest is bound to follow. Perhaps this will be the history we write in the aftermath of the 2020 election?

In 1831, a French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville came to study the new “American phenomenon.” He wrote: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

That concept is more relevant now that it has ever been.

Politics abhors a vacuum, so a decision not to engage — to ignore or absent yourself — is an action, an action that allows bad to overcome good.

If America is great because it is good, then the charitable sector is where America does its good! It is the place in our community that unites us and resists forces that try to divide. We must make the charitable sector as powerful in our political debate as the sectors of wealth and privilege.

Nonprofits are the third-largest employer in the U.S.(behind retail trade and manufacturing). It is 10% of America’s workforce, spends $2 trillion a year and has grown by 20% over the last decade, the fastest-growing sector in the economy. In Delaware, nonprofits are 12% of the workforce, bring in $6 billion in revenue and hold $8.42 billion in net assets. I believe “good citizens” need to start demanding our rightful place at the table of power brokers.

An average of 69% of voters across party lines support a bigger role for the charitable sector in working with the federal government. Eighty-five percent believe charitable groups should be able to advocate for policy in the same manner as those in the private sector. To accomplish this, the first thing we need to do is stand up!

Standing up in a democracy means voting. To fight, you must be registered to vote. If you’re already registered, look around you — if any of your family members, friends or colleagues aren’t, make it your business to help them get it done.

This election isn’t just about political issues. This one is about the soul of America.

The moment of reckoning has come: Nov. 3. On that day, we must remove political leaders who divide us. Their actions are a direct threat to the soul of the nation and the sustainability of “good citizenship.”

These are dark times, filled with crisis, but the response is like something I’ve never seen before. The Black Lives Matter protests across America look like America: Black, white, young, old, gay, straight, men, women — everyone!

It showed me what I long to see: the recognition of each other’s struggle — crisis — and we’ll fix it together — opportunity. There is hope in that!

This is a political moment of opportunity that may only come along once in a generation. When the history of this time is recorded, I want it said that America’s greatness was maintained because her “better angels” rose to the occasion!

We struggle daily to meet the basic needs of our families and our community. Playing politics is exhausting. It can make us cynical, maybe angry. I understand!

What it can’t do is make you apathetic or disengaged. That would be a win for those who oppose all that “good” stands for.

Your active engagement in your community and at the ballot box is our only chance that these days will pass. When they do, we will have made changes that continue the goodness and greatness of America.

This is my hope, my prayer and my work.

Tom Sheridan is a 30-year veteran of lobbying for nonprofit public interest causes and founder of The Sheridan Group. His book “Helping the Good Do Better” was published in 2019 and is available at bookstores or Amazon and in audible format as well.  He lives in Lewes.