I’m unable to look away. I sit there, clicker ever at the ready, bouncing between MSNBC, CNN and Fox, and I stare in disbelief, like I’m gliding past a car wreck on the side of the road. With every “Breaking News” chyron elucidating the latest allegation of malfeasance from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, more and more resignation sets in: “What have we had, 240 years?” I’ve taken to telling friends. “It was a pretty good run.”
This isn’t a partisan position; basic American values are under siege, and they seem to be targeted from the highest office in the land. So much lately, it feels like institutions that once held us together—the presidency, Congress, the press—are letting us down or failing to challenge us. But then, unexpectedly, you’re privy to something that reminds you just what it feels like to hold American values.
Last Wednesday night, I reluctantly got off the Barcalounger and headed to the Crystal Tea Room for City Year’s annual Idealist of the Year Dinner. In Philadelphia, City Year deploys some 200 AmeriCorps volunteers, all young and all donning trademark City Year red jackets, to mentor students in 14 public and charter schools. It is a program with demonstrable results; two out of every three D or F English Language Arts students raise their grades to C or better after receiving City Year support.
Leaving the Idealist Dinner, I was surrounded by 550 inspired Philadelphians, none of whom would pick up a newspaper the next day or turn on the evening news to read or watch an account of what they’d just gone through. Why isn’t an uplifting dinner like the one I’d just witnessed considered newsworthy?
At the Idealist Dinner, volunteers and the recipients of their earnest energies spoke. The star was Shynira, a beaming nine-year-old, who even outshone a hilarious introductory video from Conan O’Brien. Shynira received a standing ovation from the audience of 550 when she gushed about her classroom’s City Year volunteer, “I can’t imagine school without City Year,” she said. “Ms. Egypt always makes sure I’m doing my best.” Her proud smile illuminated the stage.
The dinner’s honoree—the idealist of the evening—was Karen Keating Mara, an attorney who co-chairs City Year’s board with Comcast General Counsel Art Block. Her remarks were not only an eloquent call to service, but also a reminder that doing for others is ultimately the path to personal growth. The ghost of Trump’s dark, self-obsessed vision hung over the proceedings; Keating Mara’s remarks felt like a message for these times.
“So I thank my beloved City Year community, this community whose values—inclusion, respect for all, diversity of ideas and people, service to others—anchored in compassion and kindness, and fueled by idealism in the face of ever constant waves of obstacles,” she said. “These are ideals for which I would fight and die… My service makes me whole. It makes me feel like my humanity is tied to others beyond my circle of incredible family and friends. It makes me whole.”
The evening raised $590,000 for the City Year cause. After, as we were filing out, there was a buzz in the air; people were psyched, inspired. “I didn’t really want to come tonight,” one attendee said. “Now I’m going to support this program.”
When I got home, I went back to my TV news. I happened to watch the speech of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, explaining his decision to remove three Confederate statues and a white supremacist memorial from his city. Have you seen it? Like Keating Mara’s remarks, Landrieu transcends politics, and makes a moral plea that goes to the heart of our shared humanity.
Landrieu references a friend who “asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African-American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are, too?”
In one evening, both Landrieu and Keating Mara took me away from obsessing over the latest political headline, and reminded me not only of what’s at stake, but that we’re all in this together. Landrieu’s speech made headlines—New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote: “Although outrage is the order of the day, his speech trafficked in empathy”—perhaps because there’s speculation that he has a future as a presidential candidate or because the issue stoked controversy in New Orleans. But that only got me thinking. Leaving the Idealist Dinner, I was surrounded by 550 inspired Philadelphians, none of whom would pick up a newspaper the next day or turn on the evening news to read or watch an account of what they’d just gone through. Why isn’t an uplifting dinner like the one I’d just witnessed considered newsworthy?
The media—particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post—have been doing a stellar job of cutting through Trump’s lies and unearthing scandal, malfeasance and—perhaps scariest of all—rank incompetence. But if that’s all the media does, we’ll all be underserved. We also need a roadmap to some constructive answers. We also need a spotlight shone on those who are working to make better that which is broken. This isn’t a call for media cheerleading, so much as an acknowledgment that great reporting can yield outrage, yes, but it can also tell stories that inspire.
Many of us went into journalism because of Woodward and Bernstein, whose reporting for The Washington Post in the early ‘70s led to Richard Nixon’s downfall. Unearthing scandal, the theory went, would lead to public outrage, which would lead to change. Well, 40 years on, unearthing scandal has made the electorate cynical and apathetic. That’s why we created The Citizen; not to present happy news, but to give citizens something to say yes to, ideas and solutions that maybe point to better days ahead.
“Inclusion, respect for all, diversity of ideas and people, service to others—anchored in compassion and kindness, and fueled by idealism in the face of ever constant waves of obstacles,” Keating Mara said. “These are ideals for which I would fight and die… My service makes me whole.”
Why weren’t there any reporters or cameras at the Idealist Dinner? Hey, I’m not trying to be holier than thou. I’ve made those news judgments in the past. There’s no tension, the thinking goes, just a bunch of Kumbaya moments designed to raise money for a charity. All too often, however, the tension we in the media seek resides in the mere stenography of who yelled at whom yesterday. It’s what legendary third baseman Mike Schmidt, often a target of Philly boo-birds, was getting at when he famously said, “Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.”
This isn’t a critique of the press in the age of Trump; just think where we’d be if the Washington press corps were easily intimidated. But the times also call for perspective that moves beyond the scoop of the day. We also need something to believe in—ideas to get excited about, calls to action to follow.
Last week, I heard two speakers who, without mentioning the president, both posited that the answer to Trumpism can be found in our common things. That’s what Keating Mara was getting at when she praised her rapt audience for “opening your heart and mind to the challenges facing children a mere mile away from where we are now and actively doing something about it.” And it’s what Landrieu captured when he cited all the ethnicities that make up his city’s stew before showing how they’d all come together: “We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, the most uniquely American art form,” he said. “…Think about Second Lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffuletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think. All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot, producing something better, everything a product of our historic diversity. We are proof that out of many, we are one, and better for it.”
So that’s why, one night last week, I was feeling pretty stoked. Because I’d heard two uplifting stories about how to reengage in the world; stories, in these divided times, that called us to common purpose. Leaving the Crystal Tea Room after Keating Mara’s call to the better angels of our nature, it dawned on me: Wouldn’t it have been great if those who weren’t in that room had felt so inspired, too?Header: Shynirah (age 9), a City Year student, runs through a group of cheering City Year volunteers