The 2020 election is just a year away, and the list of issues facing Americans is both lengthy and daunting: possible presidential impeachment, income inequality, immigration, global warming, increasingly invasive technology and crumbling infrastructure, just to name a few.
Trying to build consensus to address any, let alone all, of these issues seems daunting, if not impossible, given the fears that surround our options and cloud our thinking. Fear may in fact be the greatest challenge we face.
That was the philosophy of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of America's most significant first ladies. She, too, knew what it was like to live in trying times. Whether American democracy would survive the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthyite Red Scare or the Cold War were real questions for her. She could not be sure of the outcome.
However, Roosevelt firmly believed that fear was a dangerous response to a world in constant turmoil. It robbed individuals and societies of their ability to speak out and act. It was the reason nations stockpiled armaments and closed their borders. Above all, fear destroyed the possibility of constructive action. “People who 'view with alarm,'” she wrote at the end of her life, “never build anything.”
Roosevelt pioneered a four-step process of citizen action that we can use today to combat contemporary problems.
Roosevelt's process started with empathy for the individual. Being with people fueled her activism. “My interest or sympathy or indignation is not aroused by an abstract cause but by the plight of a single person whom I have seen with my own eyes,” she wrote in her autobiography.
After empathy came investigation. Roosevelt learned all she could about a particular problem so she could develop a solution.
As a young woman, she researched conditions in New York City sweatshops for the Consumers Union, visiting tenements, asking questions and collecting evidence to help improve worker safety and increase salaries. She took the same approach as first lady, visiting the coal regions of West Virginia to see the living conditions of unemployed coal miners, listening to students and unemployed young people who were agitating for social change during the Great Depression and meeting with Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.
Once she had the facts firmly in hand, Roosevelt pivoted to education, specifically the shaping of public opinion. She believed that in a democracy, little could be done without public support. When people wrote her, as they often did, asking what they could do to solve a problem like race relations or world peace, she would typically advise them to get to know their communities, learn how the problem manifested itself there, develop positions, then work to unite their neighbors in support of a solution.
The first lady took her own advice. To address the problem of youth unemployment in the 1930s, for example, she worked with her allies in the federal government to design the National Youth Administration, a program to help students finish their education and provide work training projects for those who had graduated.
Once a program like the NYA was up and running, Eleanor Roosevelt made a point of visiting its installations around the country to see how it was working. These travels illustrate the fourth part of her program: evaluation. She wanted to know what impact NYA programs and other New Deal initiatives had on individuals. Were their needs being met? “Were they learning a skill or regaining self-respect or confidence?”
Here, her goal was progress, not perfection. If a program or initiative failed, it was not the end of the world. It was an invitation to take what had been learned, improve on it and try again.
In our own era, when the political and social divide seems wider than ever and the problems even more daunting and intractable, when fear threatens to override the facts, her words and actions offer hope, inspiration and a practical road map for the future.
Mary Jo Binker is consulting editor for the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project and assistant editor of History News Network.