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The illusion of starfish

A few days ago, Anand Giridharadas opened up the Obama Foundation annual Conference, called The Summit, with a speech that articulated what he believes escapes changemakers in their philosophy and work. His ability to articulate the inherent dualism and lack of deeper understanding of what real change takes was poignant and timely.

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Forty years ago, this autumn, my family’s American journey began. My father

crossed an ocean, carrying seven dollars and his parent’s prayers. He planted them, into American soil and soon began to grow a family with my mother who he’d met in French class in Bombay. They had two children, a son and daughter of Ohio. My father called us “the original Cleveland Indians.” It’s funnier now. Now their children have children. The seeds they planted turned out to be perennials – an American dream in bloom.

Whatever stories brought you into this room, you are here answering a call for citizens to change the world. I am here because the name Barack Obama sounds less strange when it comes after Anand Giridharadas, and – it’s true – and because I spent the last few years reporting on people who pursue and who resist change. Today as the summit begins, I want to share some of what I’ve learned from both. I want to discuss why change is so urgent today. Why meaningful change nonetheless remains elusive for many changemakers and how this season of tempests gives changemaking fresh promise.

First the urgency. With an assist from Lou Reed, we live in an age of magic and loss. Our globalized automated economy is full of magic. Everyday low prices and next-day delivery on that single Gatorade you one-clicked. But it is also full of loss. Of jobs, of the dignity of steady work, of chances to rise. Our technology promises the magic of constant connectedness, yet we feel loss in being *atomized on separate screens, trapped in filter bubbles of belief, bobbing in a sharing economy in which the technologists seem to own all the shares. Our societies have experienced the magic that occurs when pluralism flourishes and the marginalized assume their proper powers. But loss stalks those victories as millions revolt against change and supremacies resurface. The losses threaten the magic. We need to invent new systems, new economies, new ways of life to seize the magic while addressing the loss. That is Change’s burden today. And why change cannot wait.

Despite this urgency, many of our most visible, celebrated attempts at change keep failing to alleviate the present inequalities and resentments. In my reporting, I found that real change escapes many changemakers. Because powerful illusions guide their projects.

First, the illusion that the world can be transformed one starfish at a time. Second, the illusion that you can change the world without changing people. And third, the illusion that you can change the world without being rooted in it.

The starfish illusion is captured in a popular parable. Two friends see thousands of starfish on the beach. One picks up a few and throws them back into the ocean. The other, staring at the multitudes asks, “what difference does it make?”

The thrower replies, “makes a difference to that one.”

In the usual telling, the thrower is the hero – making the small, doable change. The other guy is a grinch. But I think the grinch is misunderstood. I imagine he was just getting started with his questions. Why are the starfish being beached? Will these few rescues distract us from actual solutions? What if the thrower is complicit? A fisherman who dredges the seabed, or an oilman whose work worsens climate change, or even just a consumer of mussels or oil. Now it gets real. The thrower is making a difference to that one, yes but he is also part of the problem.

Many of today’s most prominent attempts to change the world are afflicted by this uneasy duality. It’s a bank that recklessly speculates, helps cause a financial crisis that costs multitudes their small business, pays a fine for it, and then is celebrated widely in changemaking circles for a program mentoring small business owners. It’s a tutoring program for poor kids in a place like Bridgeport, Connecticut that attracts affluent volunteers from Greenwich who would revolt if you propose to help those same children by funding public schools equally – not by local taxes.

It’s a belief in changing the world so long as it costs you *nothing.* The starfish illusion focuses changemakers on the difference they make to those they *choose* to help. Yet they risk avoiding the cause of the disease and remedies that would actually cure it. And they avoid these things in part because facing them could implicate powerful people or perhaps even themselves. They lack the self-awareness and self-scepticism that genuine change requires.

The second illusion is that worldchanging doesn’t require changing people or people changing. As our society fractures, some changemakers are drawn to visions of progress that don’t both with suasion. I’m thinking especially of those of us who live in what we regard as the America of the future and who can think of ourselves as woke. Aware of injustice, committed to pluralism, willing to fight for it. As wokeness has peculated from black resistance to the cultural mainstream, it seems at times to have become a test you must pass to engage with the enlightened – not a gospel the enlightened inspire to spread.

Either you buy our whole program, use all the right terms and expertly check your privilege, or you’re irredeemable. Is there space among the woke for the still wakening?

Today there a millions who are ambivalent between the politics of inclusion and the politics of exclusion. Not quite woke, not quite hateful. Men unprepared by their upbringing to know their place in an equal world. White people unready for a new day in which Americanness no longer means whiteness. People anxious about change’s pace, about the death of certainties. The woke have a choice about how to deal with the ambivalent. Do you focus on building a fortress to protect yourselves from them? Or a road to help the cross the mountain?

A common answer to this question, is that the people angry at losing status don’t deserve any help. They’ve been helped.

I understand this response. It is hardly the fault of the rest of us that those wielding unearned privilege bristle at surrendering it. But it is our problem. The burden of citizenship is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem. And that amid great change it is in all of our interests to help people see who they will be on the other side of the mountain top. When we accept these duties, we may begin to notice that the ways in which our very different pains rhyme.

The African-American retiree in Brooklyn who fears gentrification is whitening her borough beyond recognition probably votes differently from the white farmer in Arizona who fears immigration is browning his state. Yet their worries echo.

When we learn to detect such resonances, we gain the understanding of other people that is required to win them over and not simply to resist them. It isn’t enough to be right about the world you want to live in, you gotta sell it – even to those you fear.

Finally, there’s the illusion you can change the world without being rooted in it. Many of today’s most venerated worldchangers rarely attend local community meetings. They remain better connected to other privileged worldchangers than to any plot of earth. Citizens of the globe who risk being what British Prime Minister Theresa May has called citizens of nowhere.

This is understandable. When you seek to change the world at large, its struggles don’t accuse you. When you seek change at home, you have to deal with all you have voted for, done and not done, and quietly benefited from. The creep of business thinking into changemaking fuels this escapist citizenship. Many changemakers no longer ask what they owe a community but where they can find the highest marginal impact. I wonder if the values of optimization and effectiveness have caused some changemakers to forget the value of loyalty.

Frida Kahlo once asked “if we are not our colours, aromas, our people, what are we? Nothing.”

And you, you don’t love your mother or country because she’s quantifiably McKinsey certified as the best. I hope not. But because she’s yours. This kind of love mustn’t be spreadsheeted out of the work of change. When leaders fail to belong in this way, communities are starved of leadership and leaders of which you learn from being part of community. We might not have such a fearsome backlash against trade and immigration if more of us had been locally enmeshed and listening. Striking roots doesn’t mean ignoring large systemic problems or merely tossing starfish. In fact, when rooted, you observe how systems actually affect people.

President Obama’s aunt once said “if everyone is family, no one is family.” She told him that in Kenya, not long after he had laid roots in Chicago. He went to work in this community and married Michelle Robinson, a daughter of the southside. Raised the citizen of the world, he became a citizen of particular earth. Rooting put him on the path to leading the free world.

I’ve spoken of illusions today because it has seldom been more important to see. The starfish illusion keeps our eyes on those few we can rescue but real change is systemic and self-implicating. Urging us to see our role in vast, complex problems. The woke illusion tells us to circle the wagons, but real change is missionary seeking to expand the circle. The global illusion attempts to be thinly everywhere, not thickly somewhere. But real change is rooted and comes through bargaining with your fellow citizens as equals. These days, I find myself filled with a strange kind of hope. When times grow dark, the eyes adjust. What I see stirring in the shadows is realizing that they have neglected their communities in an age of magic and loss. All around, I see people awakening to citizenship. For decades, we imagine democracy to be a supermarket where you popped in whenever you needed something. Now we remember that democracy is a farm, where you reap what you sow. For decades we thought of citizenship as a possession, now we remember that it is something you do, not something you hold. For decades, we told ourselves it’s better to solve problems privately, outside the pathways of citizenship because politics was broken.

Now we remember that a country is only as good as its politics. And that political decay is not an excuse to flee, but a reason to dive in. This moment makes it plain that we need a new age of reform, not just a flurry of initiatives. That the best defence against hatred is offence: an evangelism of love. That changing the whole wide world must never be a refuge from tending to our own places. Look within, reach across, anchor down. Great good has been known to rise from seasons like this. Let us seek it. Let us seize it.

Thank you very much.

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Watch the ≈15 min video on YouTube here.