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Brian Gallagher: A bold new focus for United Way

On Wednesday morning November 9th, I posted two tweets.  One read, “At United Way, we fight for the health, education, and financial stability of Every person in Every community.  We stand ready to work on those terms.”  The other said, “We’re divided!  Healing will happen community by community, not in DC.  Keep the Faith!”  Today, eight days later, I am convinced that it will take the creation of more good jobs and greater community cohesion to begin the healing process and strengthen our communities.

Let me explain.  I’ve been working for United Way for 35 years.  I’ve worked in small communities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and big cities in Ohio and Georgia.  I became the President of United Way of America six weeks after the attacks on September 11th, 2001 and then of United Way Worldwide in 2009.  During my tenure, and throughout our history, our organization has worked with businesses, labor unions, non-profit organizations and government.  We’ve worked with white people, people of color, rich people, poor people, and those of all religious faiths.  We’ve worked in rural communities and in big cities.  And through all these decades I’ve never seen our country so divided.

Why is this the case?  It is because we continue to carve out the cohesive middle of our society.  First, globalization, where business moves faster than government and civil society, weakened our economic middle class, with assists from certain tax policies and advancing digital technology.  Second, through unchecked Congressional district gerrymandering and partisan political warfare, we have eliminated any semblance of the political middle in our country, certainly at the federal level.  And now, thanks in large part to this Presidential campaign, we have accelerated the carving out of our cultural middle.

As a result, people are disenfranchised and frustrated, making them susceptible to the ongoing language of hate that was normalized during this election.  Over the last 20 years, people may have been marginalized economically and politically, but now it is all too common to hear people being diminished based on gender, ethnicity, race and faith.  A common refrain is that ‘Campaigns are tough, words are said, but now we have to come together.’  Exactly right, let’s come together, after all, the alternative is dangerous.  But, let’s do more than say we’re going to come together.  Let’s take action.

What is our path forward?  We need to create more good jobs, and help prepare more people to fill them, which will spur economic and social mobility.  Good jobs give people income and hope.  I’m confident that the Trump administration and the new Congress will, among other things, focus on short-term economic stimulus measures.  Any new jobs and opportunities, however, must be accessible for all people.  America is great not when we have macroeconomic growth alone, but when everyone can freely participate in our success.  Inclusive growth is a pre-condition for national resurgence.

A brief look at history will help support my point.  When Ronald Reagan won the election in 1980 and began the modern conservative movement, I was 20 years old and thought the result would destroy our country.  My dad was a Reagan Democrat – a union member, Irish immigrant, with less than a high school degree.  Does that sound familiar today?  Most of my generation focused on Reagan’s personality and not his policies that emerged over the next decade.  It turns out Reagan was not a disaster, in fact, his presidency is viewed as a success in many areas.

Yet while supply side economic and tax policy may have helped to create macro-economic growth, it also accelerated an already growing income gap.  Additionally, the deinstitutionalization of mental health services (because caring for mentally ill people “wasn’t the government’s job”) threw hundreds of thousands of severely mental ill people on the streets across America with no alternative plan for their care.  With the later addition of ‘three strikes you’re out’ drug sentencing policies and other mandatory prison sentences that dramatically increased the number of people in prison, particularly people of color, our communities began to splinter. 

What’s the lesson to be learned?  Focus on policy, not personality.  Those left behind in the revolution that began in 1980 were those who were most marginalized due to a lack of resources and voice, race and ethnicity, or because of their mental challenges.  To succeed as a nation, we need more broad-based economic growth, the kind we achieve by providing access and opportunity to everyone: working class white folks, new immigrants, all faiths, all people.  And we have to understand that some individuals have inherent advantages to get ahead, making it critical that we ensure all people have complete access to the education, job training, and resources they need. 

There is, however, a significant difference today.  In recent years, and particularly during this campaign, we have allowed for the normalization of views and voices that preach hatred, dangerous nationalism, white supremacy and misogyny.  I hope we don’t hear this language from President Trump and other political leaders moving forward, but we have given it a platform in our mainstream culture and narrative, and it needs to be called out and eliminated from our society.  A society with a widening opportunity gap that allows people to be marginalized based on personal identity does not have a bright future.

At United Way, we will launch new goals around what I believe the country needs: A Focus on Jobs and Bringing Our Communities Back Together.  My intention in the coming weeks, months, and years is to make United Way a leading force for inclusive growth that leads to economic mobility.  Right now, we partner with businesses, labor groups, schools and policy makers in places like Des Moines and Cincinnati to train workers with the skills employers need.  As an organization, we will create or work with more of these regional development groups.  And we’ll do it while opening up these opportunities for all.

We will not succeed as a country if we don’t respect and support every single person living in America or embrace our diversity, inclusiveness and individual rights and freedoms.  That goes for white people, people of color, Christians, Muslims, Jews, straight, gay…everyone.  We bring our country back together again by creating better jobs available to all, and eliminating hate whenever and wherever we see it. 

We at United Way are ready to work with the new administration and Congress in Washington, state and local leaders, businesses, labor unions and all interested people to achieve these goals.  As I said last Wednesday, we will continue to fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in every community. 

Let’s put all peoples’ interest first, our institution’s interests next, and our personal interests last.  Lasting economic success has never happened without long-term broad-based human success!