An Open Letter to Joe Biden, President of the United States
Dear Mr. President,
You are taking oath as the 46th President of the United States during unprecedented times. On the one hand, your administration must contain the virus, vaccinate the population, and rebuild the economy. At the same time, our country faces many grand challenges beyond this pandemic- such as rising socio-economic inequalities, centuries of oppression and racial injustices, domestic extremism, and political dysfunction. The question on everyone’s mind is how would your administration address the problems ripping this country apart. I am sure you are receiving plenty of good advice. Your emergency relief and economic plans demonstrate the attention you will be paying to the pandemic and its economic fallouts. Please allow me to add to the advice by focusing on the cultural challenges your administration must also deal with.
Culture is learned, shared, and expressed in values, beliefs, ideologies, and behaviors. Since disorder and senselessness make humans anxious, we develop culture (i.e., learn and share) to cope with the world around us. Culture gives us comfort in our daily lives and may also provide us with meaning.
In our country, we are currently encountering a complex cultural landscape, not only because we have fallen into polar-opposite camps based on how we have interpreted various events throughout our history but also because we have failed to decipher the structure of American culture.
It is problematic that we have not made a conscious national effort to understand and question our underlying cultural assumptions. To address these challenges, we can begin by asking (for example): Why do our legal, political, and socio-economic systems further reinforce racism and inequalities? Why do we dehumanize others when we face disagreement? Why do we think we are better than others?
You ran as a cultural candidate to restore the soul of the country. Now you have (at least) four years to help the Nation engage in serious soul-searching.
This would require connecting with the history with brutal honesty, introspecting, and reflecting on our actions that have harmed others locally, nationally, and globally. To build inclusive and equitable institutions, we need to challenge our basic underlying assumptions about human progress, justice, and prosperity. We must also acknowledge our wrongdoings and rewrite norms that uphold American ideals for all.
Crises require immediate attention and demand long-term reforms- challenging and changing nations in predictable and unpredictable ways. Therefore, a leader’s test is to foster a change that builds their own and their constituents’ capacity to learn and grow together. To unite a nation requires recognizing and reconciling differences. This presidency is your Mandela moment. Like him, you say you are choosing hope and healing over despair and hate. I agree. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “We must never lose infinite hope.”
This is not going to be easy. You will have to fight diametrically opposed factions (within and outside political parties), address mass delusions, and root out systemic racism. At the same time, you will have to see the best in people, even when their actions demonstrate otherwise. People will resist. Many will also obstruct your efforts. You will have to persevere through your conviction by building a strong team of supporters, challengers, and influencers. You will need to commit to justice and promote human dignity and well-being for all. You will have to lead the nation humanistically to build equitable institutions and a ‘learning’ culture.
While America has a long road ahead, I want to thank you for giving the Nation a fighting chance. In this present moment, we need to learn from the past to change the course of our future.
Shaista E. Khilji
Jan 17, 2021
The George Washington University & the Humanizing Initiative
I am thankful to all participants of the Courageous Conversations I host at GW. Their questions inspire me. In particular, I appreciate Rita Meyerson for sharing several news articles with me. All errors are mine.
This article has emerged from the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate humanistic leadership. For more information, please refer to https://www.humanizinginitiative.com