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We Are Trustees of Our Democracy: We Need to Act Like It

In the wake of Representative John Lewis’ recent passing, let's channel his life as business and organizational leaders and strive to preserve democracy.
By Edward Quevedo

Co-written with Mackinzee Macho, a program manager in the Regenerative Justice Cities and Regenerative Design Programs at the Foresight Lab. Macho has delivered podcasts and written essays highlighting her program areas and plans on teaching courses and convening dialogues on these topics as well. She is a candidate for the Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Science at Carthage College. She is currently considering the pursuit of graduate studies in International Diplomacy. 


We all have places that we go to find ourselves. Wild places, our old neighborhoods, our favorite sitting and thinking spots. These places help us to become human again when the rush and frenzy (and these days, the uncertainty and fear) of daily life threaten to dehumanize us.

In our work as corporate or nonprofit professionals, we also have such places. The garage where our business was launched. The retreat center where we determined the heart of our business was in social or cultural entrepreneurship. These places, the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol building, municipal parks, sports stadiums, places of worship. These are places we go with our loved ones and friends, business colleagues and children, to find our shared selves, and to remember our better impulses.

One such place is the Edmund Pettus bridge in Dallas County, Selma, Alabama. We have gathered there often to express our shared confusion over the gravitational changes in our society wrought by the civil rights movement. We then visited it again to celebrate the possibility that those changes could be positive. 

In the wake of Rep. John Lewis’ passing, we are impelled to ask: What is the lesson of his remarkable and signal life for us as business and organizational leaders? Because of the courage of Rep. Lewis and his brothers and sisters in the civil rights movement, they ultimately compelled federal lawmakers to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today, we find ourselves separated and tribalized by political views. This is true both at work and in our personal and citizenship lives. Instead of being connected through the humanization and profound love we find in our places of resort, we are driven apart by our shallow politics, fed by media — what we used to call journalism.

Many of today's news sources serve only to confirm the biases of their viewers instead of challenging them. In concert with our seeking refuge in distraction and amusement, we do not counteract this tribalism but instead stew in it.

Just as we are trustees of our land for future generations, we are trustees of our public discourse. And just as we are trustees of our businesses for the sake of our stakeholders (in a cultural or social enterprise, of course, these include the community and ecology, as well as investors), we are called at this time to heal the divides we experience in these parts of our lives, incited by party politics and partisanship. Patently, our politicians will not bridge this division. It is up to us. 

A trustee carries an outmoded trait as her banner: fidelity. Faithfulness to principles and honor. A trustee protects and stewards that to which she is entrusted for the benefit of another. In this way, we are trustees of our public discourse, and of our democracy. 

For us in business and organizational leadership positions, this trusteeship demands that we ask harder and deeper questions about everything from our brand and market positioning, to the diversity of opinions from stakeholders we engage to validate our impact goals or compliance with benefit corporation legal requirements.

And of course we must to a better job of recruiting and educating our employees and colleagues about the value of diverse viewpoints, orientations and life experiences. The social science on this point is clear: It is demonstrably true that companies and philanthropies with people of color and women on their boards perform better. This is true in terms of profit for companies and of effective impact and social change for philanthropies and nonprofits.

When we take these issues to heart, and work to run our organizations as though the watchful and gentle eyes of leaders such as Rep. Lewis were watching over our shoulders, perhaps it is then we can begin to innovate our approach to diversity and inclusion. 

We gathered together as a nation again at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on July 27 to celebrate Mr. Lewis’ life. It was that of a simple and humble man who rose to prominence reminding us of civic virtues: service, honor, respect and kindness. These traits described and innervated Rep. Lewis. His words, deeds and spirit suffused our national culture for five decades. He reacted to the vicious blows of batons wielded by law enforcement officers, and words of hate hurled by his fellow citizens, with tranquility and a tangible inner light and strength. He refused to return those physical and emotional insults.

He exemplified the principle of trusteeship of our democracy. Today, as we go to our places of business, worship, communion and play, perhaps we can all consider what we can do to embody service, honor, respect and kindness.

In trusteeship and service to each other, we can make our schools and playgrounds safe and sensible spaces of protection and learning for our children. In honor, we can work to eliminate the current coarsened and polarized tenor of our civic debate. In respect, we can find ways to make our business and work lives more humane. And in kindness, we can begin the essential work of healing our centuries-long struggle to become an inclusive and truly representative society.

The wellspring of all these traits so effortlessly embodied by Mr. Lewis is, of course, love. Too often, we misunderstand this simple emotion. As quoted by Adam Kahane in Power & Love, Bill O’Brien (the past president of Hanover Insurance), spoke thus: “By ‘love,’ I mean a predisposition toward helping another person to become complete: to develop to their full potential. Love is not something that suddenly strikes us - it is an act of the will. By “an act of will,” I mean that you do not have to like someone to love him or her. Love is an intentional disposition toward another person.”

Let us consider this expression of love as the source of the wisdom, patience, and courage we will need in the coming weeks to approach our next election as trustees of the gift of democracy, as the heat and turmoil of our summer turns to the cooling, multi-colored tapestry of autumn.

"You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light … Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won." ― Rep. John Lewis, (D. GA) quoted in Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America

Image credit: David Mark/Pixabay

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Edward Quevedo is the Director of Regenerative Design, and the Head of Practice, at The Foresight Lab.

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