“We need your leadership.”
These four words stayed with me this week after I listened to a podcast produced by the NY Times called “Promise and Peril of the Green New Deal.” In it, they recount the story about how a group of children confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein about her reluctance to publicly support the Green New Deal, an ambitious and controversial set of ideas meant to address climate change and social justice.
Unfortunately for Senator Feinstein, the confrontation was captured on video by the organizers, the Sunrise Movement, and it has since been viewed more than 10 million times and sparked a fierce debate across the political spectrum.
While some focus exclusively on the ideas in the Green New Deal, I am inspired by the confrontation. I had the benefit of hearing the events unfold in Senator Feinstein’s office on a podcast, without the video. Something happens when you’re restricted to audio. It heightens your senses and makes you aware of cues you might ordinarily miss with video. This is exactly what happened.
The video clip that has been posted on Twitter is only two minutes and 20 seconds long. It starts out by showing a group of children, possibly in middle school and maybe even as young as elementary school. It’s hard to tell, but their voices suggest a youthful idealism that you’ll recognize when you hear it.
The kids unroll a large handwritten letter and proclaim to the camera that they plan to confront the Senator with it. In the next scene they do just that. You can watch the video for yourself to see how things play out.
A lot of people reacted negatively when they watched Senator Feinstein’s reaction. To them, she came across as rude and dismissive. Others were annoyed by the children and their seemingly naïve views on how policy is made and passed in this country. To them, they represented the next wave of the radical left.
To me, however, these kids and their interaction with Senator Feinstein present us with a compelling question we all need to answer. Why aren’t young leaders as deterred by obstacles as their elders?
The answer is because young leaders like those who challenged Senator Feinstein understand what Dr. King famously called the “fierce urgency of now.” I invite some of my more seasoned progressive leaders who are reading this to remember Dr. King when they lament the tensions created by activists like these kids.
In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes eloquently in response to those who had criticized his activities and his methods. Dr. King explains that he is writing the letter in response to a group of eight local Alabama clergymen who had just written their own statement calling civil rights protests in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.”
Dr. King chastises them for calling for “unity” instead of calling for solutions: “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.”
And he explains—as he will over and over throughout his life—that tension can sometimes be a requirement for progress: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.T
There comes a moment in the video with Senator Feinstein where she, in what appears to be exasperation, says that she “is trying her best.” In the distance, a young voice rises to say, “We need your leadership.”
There are moments of tension where the wisdom of the voice, no matter how young, pierces the soul. If you have children, you know what I mean. In this moment, we are reminded that it is not the tenor of the voice that conveys wisdom. It is the ability of the voice to speak truth in the midst of tension that offers wisdom.
Here are three things to remember.
First, sometimes creating tension is a form of leadership. Tension, done properly, can be a strategy. So, don’t settle for managing the ecosystem. Aspire to disrupt and then to transform it.
Second, don’t allow people to remain focused on the tension, alone. Remind them to focus on the source of the tension. This will be your opportunity to highlight the structural and systemic roots that run beneath that tension.
Third, always identify who is being asked to pay the true price for inaction. Waiting for the right moment to positively impact someone else’s life is a luxury reserved for the privileged.
There is a lot we can learn from the kids of the Sunrise Movement, the students from Parkland, Florida, and from the children who marched with Dr. King in Birmingham. Let’s listen.
About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.