To Students the Day After the Election

An open letter to our incredible students at the Schools of Denver Center for International Studies

November 9, 2016

What are we to think this morning? How are we to act? How will we navigate the coming days and years through the chaos we fear from the paradigm shift yesterday brought us?

I’m asking myself these questions at 2:52 in the morning after the presidential election, unable to sleep in the turmoil I’m feeling as a result of yesterday’s outcome. My first thought after a short hour of restless sleep was of my own children and grandchildren – and of you. What kind of country have we created for you to become adults in, to live in, to lead meaningful, productive, happy lives in?

While some of you will be happy for the outcome – but may be hesitant to show it depending on the people around you – I know some of you will have tears this morning when you face this day after. You may celebrate, or you may grieve that your candidate didn’t win. When you are ready, I ask you to beyond the candidates to the people who were compelled to get out and vote for their candidate to victory, or on the people who for various reasons chose not to vote for the candidate who lost. What does this election teach us about the people and the character of today’s society that perhaps we’d not been ready to acknowledge?

We have certainly created a very divided and fragmented country for you. We have become pods of separate pride in what we think is true, what we think we know will make our country great, what we think will make the US the right and just leader in a larger world that, as it turns out, is our own reflection in the mirror.

We are indeed in the midst of an astounding paradigm shift. But a closer look at what that shift is about could shed some light on what today, tomorrow, our coming weeks and years might mean for all of us, and certainly for you. Did I say we are in a fragmented time? Yet on the other hand we are in a more connected, lateral and technology-leveraged world than ever before, and it is developing at an exponentially increasing speed with dramatic implications for individuals, communities, nations and the planet. Accelerating manifestations of this change already in place include a rapid rise of automation; new modes of immediate communication that lead to trends and power of voice accessible to all, not just the top of hierarchies; and a rapidly expanding global interconnectedness above and beyond political structures and boundaries, irrespective of one’s political, organizational, or socioeconomic status.

And now politics reveals another startling facet of the shift to a degree we couldn’t imagine before. On one side we have an incoming president that has been painted as mean, a misogynist, racist, con artist, fraud. But he was elected. On the other side we have a narrowly-defeated candidate who has been characterized by her opponents as deceitful and a security risk. She was challenged in the primaries by a candidate that garnered tremendous support by attacking the established economic and wealth distribution system. The energy in the recent campaign season culminating in yesterday’s results points to a groundswell from millions of people previously in the shadows with their dissatisfaction and anger at what they perceived to be an archaic, out-of-touch system, but the shift – and the winning candidate – validated their voice that perhaps they hadn’t felt free to use before.

The shift is agnostic; it creates both positive human empowerment and agency like never before seen on the planet, as well as fear-provoking circumstances with new and devastating chain reactions that threaten our human conditions and earth’s ecosystems. It is into this shift that you march, challenged to harness the positive potential of this shift.

Are we helping you learn the knowledge and skills you need to move with competence, confidence, curiosity, and joy into that future?

I think we’re on the right track. We’re teaching you to investigate your world: learn how to ask great questions that lead you to deep information about your life, your community, the globe’s incredible panoply of cultures, and the earth itself. Questions that fire your curiosity to ask yet further questions and delve even deeper into the mysteries of your life and its context. We’re wanting you to recognize and weigh perspectives, both your own and those of other people. Not just others in countries and cultures far away, but others next door, or in the next neighborhood that has its own reasons for being a neighborhood.

We want to empower you to communicate with the world about ideas, knowledge you are learning and creating, and ideas, creations, and wisdom you are hearing from others. Learning to become literate, articulate, and eloquent in your own language and others, with digital communications, and with intercultural skills. Learning to listen as the highest quality of communication.

Then we want to see you empowered to take action to make a better world from what you have investigated, from the multiple perspectives you have perceived, and from the communicating in which you have developed expertise.

This past election and its results make me look forward to a future when you reteach these principles to us. As you grow to lead us, show us how to better investigate different facets of what might be true, and to embrace what we might not readily understand. Lead us to think deeply about what others’ perspectives are and how they came to be, and how to be courageous in letting them affect and enlarge our own. As you become skilled and facile in communicating with your world, model for us how to listen – really listen to others without simultaneously constructing our retorts. As you develop and implement your thoughtful and energetic plans for action, lead the way for us in true and healthy habits of empathy, compassion, collaboration, and voice for all. Help us remember that although many others might have used their voice for what we firmly hold dear we must join them with our own voice, too – that one more voice that might make the crucial difference. And at the same time demonstrate to us how to stand consistently strong for shared respect, integrity, and true equity, and against the divisive shadows of racism, deceit, and misogyny on any level.

We are surprised by the outcome of this election, yet to a great extent we could see all along that an overwhelming emotion behind this outcome was anger, as so much of our larger political process leading up to the election has manifested. During the campaigns the anger escalated from both sides. We became angry about what the other side was saying and framing as truth, and we sheltered ourselves in our own truths. Both sides fed themselves with information, opinions, and observations that bolstered their own perspectives. Our ability nationally to truly investigate the world with great questions as others are experiencing it from their own lens was weak; our ability to absorb those different perspectives without vilifying the people that held them was weak; our eagerness to communicate across perspective differences with earnest attempts at empathy was weak; we framed our political action stances from those weaknesses. So the results of the election snuck up on us and we are surprised. Perhaps this is the surprise our country needs.

You are growing into a position to harness the positive attributes of the shift we are in as you move into, and become, the adult world. Be the wisest critical thinkers you can be. Think for yourselves. Don’t let Google searches and Facebook that are specifically geared to give you what you like squeeze you into siloed thinking and passions. You are digital natives; you communicate with each other instantaneously and can create positive trends; you are learning to be resilient, ingenious, and compassionate in the same breath. You are learning to care about the dire needs of our planet and its diverse inhabitants, and are honing your knowledge to meet those needs. Take this positive power that is your potential to lead us forward.

And maybe now I can sleep a bit more before the night is over.

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