A Chorus of Voices Calling for Change
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.”
Barack Obama (January 10, 2017)
As I stood amongst the crowd in Chicago listening to these words just over a month ago, a great surge of citizen action across the country had already begun, but the world didn’t know it yet. Organizers were working tirelessly to lay the groundwork for cross-country caravans to Washington, marches in the streets, rallies in front of city halls, and campaigns to contact members of Congress and the Senate. And along with a group of trusted friends, I had begun hatching a plan to start a new effort that we are officially launching to the public today.
Our country is grappling with a toxic political culture. Everyday, Americans are confronted with countless disincentives to civic participation — gerrymandering, special interests, polarizing debate. Sensationalist, soundbite-driven (and even “fake”) news. Systematic voter disenfranchisement via registration and ID laws. Disingenuous, focus-grouped, poll-tested, scripted speeches from leaders who appear to be more interested in their approval numbers and fundraising prospects than serving their constituents. Dog whistle politics.
Tens of millions of people in our country are systematically oppressed, left out and left behind. Even as we inch forward in more reflective representation, our elected officials are overwhelmingly White and male. Socio-economic inequality persists, and our country remains largely divided along racial lines. Voter turnout in November was the lowest in 20 years, with only 55 percent of voting-age citizens casting a ballot. Approval numbers in Washington are plummeting, and trust in government is hitting historic lows. It isn’t a pretty picture.
And yet there is hope. The outpouring of collective action these last few months is evidence of what organizers have always believed to be true — it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe we are at a turning point in our nation’s history, and that this pivotal moment calls on us to renew our political and civic culture.
To answer that call, we bring you CHORUS.
CHORUS is a new organization that seeks to foster and strengthen the movement for equity, opportunity, inclusion, and justice. Our mission is to change the culture of politics and create a more engaged America. To do this, we’ll be nurturing communities of support for civic entrepreneurs, fostering collaboration in the civic space, and creating tools and resources to support a culture of engagement.
Next week, we’ll be kicking off our work with an inaugural convening at the University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. On February 27th and 28th, we will gather just over 50 leaders to explore how we might better harness technology to inspire civic action. This is to be the first in a series of collaborative convenings we are launching in 2017.
And later this year, we plan to launch an affiliated 501c4 that will focus on providing holistic, pro-bono support to first-time candidates in target state legislative districts around the country. At this critical moment in history, it is more important than ever that we lift up voices who will honestly and boldly reflect, empower, and serve our communities.
And now, a quick story. On November 10th, Zadie Smith — one of my favorite writers — gave a talk in Berlin on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize. The New York Review of Books later printed her speech, entitled “On Optimism and Despair.” I will not try to summarize that speech for you; you simply have to read it. But I will leave you with her closing words, as they are the words that inspired our name.
“If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”