America: The Home of the Free and the Brave

“America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me, you let me make a difference. A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”

A week ago, a couple of days after the presidential election, my colleague Sophie Fanelli shared these lyrics from the musical Hamilton with a room full of foundation colleagues gathered in our office in San Francisco. We had brought people together to discuss an educational partnership to provide low-income Bay Area public school students with the opportunity to see Hamilton and integrate the show into classroom studies. The mood was heavy in the room, and the themes from the show resonated deeply with all of us. Indeed, these particular lyrics ring so true today in the aftermath of such a bruising presidential election. Irrespective of which candidate one supported, there is no denying we are a divided country in need of healing. We are a nation struggling to find a firm footing upon which we can stand and steady ourselves.

One of the greatest lessons my mentor, former Boston superintendent Tom Payzant, taught me was to remember that during the darkest and most challenging times, “the Superintendency is knowing what to do when you don’t know.” I think about these words now in the wake of last Tuesday’s election.

As the leader of a philanthropic institution dedicated to helping disadvantaged children succeed in life through education, I am struggling to understand my place, and the place for my institution, in the emerging national discourse.

What’s clear to me, though, is that philanthropy must play a critical role as the keeper of civility. We must stay relentless, vigilant, and focused on ensuring that our national discourse remains fixed on what is most ethical, most important, and most needed in our country. For my foundation, that means re-centering the conversation around the importance of educating our children well.

Parents and educators will face difficult conversations and challenging questions from children across America in the days, weeks, and months after the election. We have an extraordinary responsibility to stand for what’s right for every child — no matter the color of their skin or immigration status; whether they are in the foster care system or have same-sex parents; whether they are Jewish, Muslim or any other faith.

We must be more committed than ever to give our children the knowledge, skills, and tools to have a sense of who they are, that they belong, and that they matter. We must teach them that, during times like these, we can look to history for wisdom and context: What must it have been like to experience the sense of division in our country after the fall of the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott case? What of the consuming fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis? The betrayal of public institutions during Watergate? The anguish and vulnerability of the 9/11 attacks?

We can show our students that each time our country emerged — somehow stronger — because ordinary Americans rose up to do extraordinary things. Through history we can empower our children and teach them that there isn’t anything they can’t achieve and do if they set goals and stay determined and focused.

We must also help our children learn how to express and process feelings in a constructive way that leads to cooperation, not conflict. We should advance a renewed interest and focus on civics so children will learn how to be constructive and full partners in our democracy. We must show them their supports, and guide them to turn to scholars, teachers, parents, religious leaders, community activists, and mentors for words of comfort, hope, courage, and love.

As organizations who support advocates on the front lines of social change, foundations have an extraordinary obligation — now more than ever — to say loud and clear that we are here for our partners and grantees. We have your back and we’ll support you in the good fight to help every child.

On the day after the election, my thirteen-year-old son was motivated to lead for his generation. “I’m running for President in 2036,” he announced. “Your generation Dad, doesn’t want to change. What you don’t realize is change is happening faster than we ever imagined.” So true Joey.

My son’s take-away from this election was that he could step up to power. In contrast, my colleague’s daughter, who is not white, was afraid to leave her home on November 9th.

We cannot leave our children so afraid and vulnerable. No way. Not today. Not in America. Not in the home of the free and the brave.