Our Collective Challenge and Opportunity Has Never Been Greater 

Lori Severens | November 10, 2020 |

This letter was shared with our Ascend Fellows, Network Partners, and community. 

Hello Ascenders  

Today is exactly one week since nearly 160 million Americans cast their vote. This will go down as one of the most historic and hotly contested presidential elections our nation has ever seen. In the face of unprecedented challenges, people, especially Black, Brown and Indigenous people, voted and civically engaged with courage and conviction. People want to feel seen and heard. When we speak to them, they respond, and they show up in record numbers. Like many of you, over the weekend, I rejoiced watching people in cities, suburbs, and towns, and across race, generation, gender, national origin, and economic station take to the streets dancing, honking horns, banging pots. Together, we took a stand for values-based leadership.

With so much work ahead, our county called for stronger, higher values and the need to serve children and families with our full collective support and sustained investment. This sort of leadership is what Ascend at the Aspen Institute has always stood for. We know it will be even more important in the days and months ahead as we go about the work of healing, restoration, and rebuilding. Now, we begin the work of ascending together.

In the face of the ongoing and inequitable impact of COVID, polarized political rhetoric and pernicious and painful racism, the surge of people who voted and organized with passion and purpose is inspiring. We now have the opportunity to make it possible for each family to live their best life. We have an open invitation to choose the path that leads to health and prosperity and to choose to confront and dismantle racism, sexism, classism and all forms of oppression in our structures, systems, and actions. Never before have we had such visible reminders of the promise of leadership and diversity at the highest levels of leadership. With the election of our first Black and Indian-American woman Vice-President, we the people have made clear our desire to see the fullness of our humanity represented in who makes the decisions that impact our lives and visible diversity at the highest levels of leadership.

So, what’s next, Ascenders? Here are three challenges I would like to pose to our community as we make meaning of what has happened and make our way forward:

First, I challenge us all to be radically inclusive and people-centered in our approach to policy and programs. Listen and respond to the hopes and dreams as well as the pain and struggles of families and communities. Tapping those better angels and purpose of public service invites Washington to look outward, not inward, for the future. To kitchen tables, not political kitchen cabinets. To those with lived and front-line experience, not those who lack it.

President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will soon be setting up a new government, one that will have to work with a divided nation, a divided Congress, and statehouses that are increasingly Republican controlled. We won’t get far if we aren’t equally committed to candor and compassion in how we engage with people we may not always agree with on everything.

Second, I challenge us to make investing in children and families a national priority. As a Network of Ascend Fellows and Partners who have been fearlessly working on issues of utmost importance, this is our moment. Across the Ascend Network, there are leaders and proven solutions that will help our nation recover from COVID and get back up on our feet economically. We have Ascend Fellows who are well positioned to assume key positions in federal, state, and county agencies responsible for setting the agenda for how we support children and families and constructing programs informed by lived experience, best practice, data and science. They’ll decide which resources to deploy to ensure our support of families is done equitably and effectively.

As we envision what is possible in the next year, imagine a Presidential Commission Focused on Family Prosperity, Well–being and Equity that is embraced by both sides of the aisle. Imagine an interagency council of parents, caregivers and on–the–ground innovators at the decision-making table for the new policy agenda. Imagine the launch of a Family Prosperity Corps creating civic pathways for young leaders to support families and communities, especially those hit hardest by COVID and racism.

Finally, I challenge us to operationalize the recent wave of private sector public statements on racial justice, inclusion, and equity to advance real change. This includes creating will to act within long-standing institutions. As we read in the Chamber of Commerce’s statement congratulating President-elect Biden, this truly is “a historic  moment  to unleash a new era of inclusive growth, widespread opportunity, and boundless innovation.” Together, we can ensure these words become reality.

As policymakers look for ideas and solutions that are popular with voters and geared toward generating bipartisan support, let’s focus our attention where energy is the highest and need is the greatest. A new generation of diverse leaders are ready with bold ideas and pragmatic, purpose–driven solutions. Look to Georgia where Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow Dr. Raphael Warnock, Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, stepped into the political arena for the first time to fight for justice and equality. Let’s also look to Ascend Network partners advancing family–supportive policies like paid family and medical leave, which passed in Colorado with 57 percent of voter support.

Working in all 50 states, Tribal Nations, and Puerto Rico, Ascend Network Partners work to transcend partisan politics and find common ground. We want all families to thrive. This is no pipe dream; it is an achievable one. When we suspend judgement of families with low incomes and instead listen to the wisdom they offer about how to make systems work best for them, we put all of us on a surer path toward equity, economic prosperity, and mobility.

The challenges we face have never been greater and neither have the opportunities. We extend our congratulations to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris! Ascend at the Aspen Institute is ready to make 2021 a great comeback year for American families with clarity, conviction, and justice.

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