“It seems the right time to ask, what are each of us normally not that these times suddenly require us to be?”
That was how Ambassador Samantha Power closed her talk as part of the Open Visions Forum at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts on Oct. 2. For approximately an hour she expounded upon a variety of topics, speaking at great length about the current impact of polarization in politics both here in the United States and abroad, the question of whether democracy has been irreparably tarnished (Power as an idealist does not believe it has) and the concept of “shrinking the change,” of average people make their own small societal contributions to affect striking change.
Before she even stepped on the Quick Center stage, however, Ambassador Power took time to speak with The Mirror about her career and the themes discussed in her new book, “The Education of an Idealist.”
Power spoke first about her transition from being a war reporter, covering genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, to her role as a foreign policy advisor in President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
“When you’re a journalist, [you have] to be able to bridge that distance between what you’re seeing and what your readers are living, which is very different,” Power explained. “If you’re living through a war, how do you describe that so it will feel resonant?” Power found a parallel between this challenge of communicating such visceral concepts effectively in her work in the White House.
“Something very similar [happens] in the Situation Room,” she said. “You’re trying to convey the urgency of, let’s say, sexual violence in a conflict or mass refugee flight or child soldiers being recruited, but you’re with a bunch of people who are not living in that world, so how do you convey it? It’s very similar.”
Her biggest challenge in taking on a role similar to the ones she had previously criticized as an activist was how to first and foremost affect the change that she wished to see. It took a learning curve of a few months to understand how that process worked, and to figure out how to communicate with what she termed an audience “rooted in a set of domestic constraints.” The Obama administration took office in January of 2009, in the midst of an economic crisis that was costing millions of Americans their jobs. Power had to shift her expectations of President Obama during this time, figuring out how much of his attention she could ask him to focus on America’s role abroad when there was so much turmoil happening at home. Doing this while simultaneously trying to achieve the goals that she wanted to accomplish was a challenge, but Power felt that she eventually gained the skills that allowed her to pursue what she had entered politics to attain.
Power also spoke directly to the main two lessons that she has learned over the course of her career, “Lean On” and “Shrinking the Change”, both of which ended up as chapter titles in her book. “Lean On” refers both to the title and concepts of Sheryl Sandberg’s first book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.” Power’s book aims to render her career, where she held a high-pressure position while also becoming a mother to her two children, transparent and relatable. She wants to make readers understand “just what it takes” to make that happen, that her family network was indispensable and what made her work life possible while she was an ambassador.
The other notable lesson is how she concluded her main presentation, explaining the concept of “Shrinking the Change.” This is all about how problems can be tackled, and rather than trying to solve huge issues like climate change in one fell swoop, breaking it down into manageable pieces that anyone can take on leads to an increase in people willing to take that action.
“If you don’t like what you see, if you think it can be better and have some sense of what ‘better’ would look like, you’re an idealist,” Power explained. “You believe that something could be changed, that there must be change of some sort. And the second step is, do you believe that you can play a role in making that change.”
Ambassador Power expanded further on these and other ideas during her presentation, as promised delivering a global view of the current state of the world. She spent the majority of her time detailing what she sees to be a polarized world, wherein people retreat to and find comfort in their familiar echo chambers at the risk of accepting or even acknowledging facts which challenge their worldviews. She finds no greater threat to United States national security and global stability than this polarization within democracy, but argues that we are not living in a “doomsday” moment. Rather, this should act as a wake-up call to not take for granted some of the basic pillars of our democracy, including “the durability of liberal institutions, the sacred status of science [and] a baseline attachment to facts.”
It was then that Power closed with her call-to-action, a reminder again to “shrink the change” and find the little things that are within the average person’s power to improve.
“If 2019 isn’t a summons for idealism in everyone I don’t know what is,” she stated. “The challenge for myself and for others is stirring in people a recognition that there will be no change if we’re just defeatist and that if there is to be change, it requires [lots of] people to be activated, who are rigorous and willing to fail and get back up.”