The Story We Need to Tell Ourselves: Bending the Arc of History Is the Work of Ordinary People (And We Are Those People)

08/17/2011 12:46 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2011
  • David Levitus David Levitus is a social entrepreneur, civic leader, and independent scholar.

The most-emailed article of last week was Drew Westen's indictment of President Obama. According to Westen, "there was a story the American people were waiting to hear -- and needed to hear -- but he didn't tell it." Regardless of whether you agree with Westen's critique, his piece contained two rich kernels of wisdom:

1. "The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be."

2. "When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it."

If we believe that the stories matter immensely, then we must realize our own power, as ordinary people, to shape them. The president does not have monopoly over the stories we share. Politicians do not have a monopoly. As the great social movements have shown, when ordinary people get organized and work together to articulate the values they believe, to project their own story of how the world is, how it ought to be and how to bridge the gap, politicians will follow.

Sympathetic politicians can be invaluable allies; they are necessary partners in reforming bad policies; very rarely are they true leaders. Average, everyday people must become their own leaders.

The cold truth is that progressives did not build the movement that put Obama into the White House. If we expect our elected officials to share our values and our strategies, we must continue to put our full weight into bending the arc of history. It is not enough to join a campaign every four years and then to get angry when politicians do not follow our lead. We must continue to engage politicians when they are in office, regardless of whether we agree with them, but we must remember that they will only pay attention to us when we build coalitions strong enough to make it politically perilous for them to ignore us.

The good news is that across the board, we are beginning to see progressive organizations working to scale up the size and sophistication of their efforts. Groups that have previously focused on their own particular issues and communities are banding together.

Over the last year, for instance, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), the PICO national organizing network, the National People's Action (NPA) community organizing network, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been jointly organizing to hold banks accountable for re-investing in our nation's communities.

And in the last few months, an amazingly broad coalition of progressive groups have rallied around the banner of the Rebuild the American Dream movement, led by Van Jones.

Among the American Jewish community, a similar movement is stirring. Two weeks ago, I was proud to be one of 170 Jews from 16 states who gathered at the White House to make clear that growing an economy that works for all Americans is at the top of the Jewish communal agenda. Our delegation from the twenty-one groups of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable engaged top administration officials and, equally important, created ties among the grassroots leaders who labor daily with our diverse local partners to bring about the change we need.

I was especially pleased to represent Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice, two groups which merged in June, with a plan to expand our local organizing across the United States. For more on the powerful visit and our plans for the future, check out this report and call to action:

"Now is the time to stand up and redouble our efforts to create the kind of society we want to live in, one in which all people enjoy a decent place to live, a job that lets them provide for their family, and access to healthy food, good medical care and a fair legal system. In the halls of power, via the media and on the ground, we and our multiethnic, multifaith partners are insisting that America live up to its promise. Through local campaigns for fair government policies and business practices, national advocacy efforts, innovative media initiatives, leadership development programs and direct investments in low-income community development, we are already making a difference."

The great success of the Obama campaign in 2008 was how many millions of Americans invested their energies and resources in a collective effort to better align our politics with our values.

For all the frustrations of the last two years, the lesson remains clear. To bend the arc of history toward justice will require all of us to get organized and start pushing.