Sometimes a failure in leadership is an opportunity to evaluate our own willingness to step forward.

In the face of a leader who has degraded our country’s most cherished democratic values, specifically, inclusiveness, diversity, and equal opportunity, we may grieve at the negligence of our sacred ideals.

Or, we can step forward as stewards of the fundamental vision that was ignited with our founding fathers, one that has progressively evolved over the decades.

When our commander-in-chief obscenely demeans whole countries of people by insulting their culture, poverty, or skillsets, he essentially wounds our democracy as we know it.

To judge a person’s worth in terms of skin color, country of origin, or wealth is inhumane and grossly undemocratic. The American Dream is built on the notion that with nothing, we can still achieve everything.

The moment the leader of the free world tears apart that fundamental notion, that leadership becomes a sham in the shadow of the words inscribed on our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Who, then, will step forward as protectors of that vision? Moreover, anyone who assumes to be a steward of our democracy must ask oneself:

At present, which are the most vulnerable democratic ideals? Furthermore, what can be done to protect these ideals?

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., this month, it is clear that we are celebrating the dream and accomplishments of this amazing civil rights leader, alongside purported sentiments of inequality and an attack on equal opportunity.

The lowest common dominator of liberty, being the fundamental value of opportunity, becomes denigrated once we extend opportunity based on country or continent of origin, race, wealth or merit-based criteria.

In order to uphold the basic democratic ideals of equality and equal opportunity, in the face of a failure of leadership, stewards of democracy must step forward.

These stewards may not only be elected officials, but each and every citizen who feels the volition to do so.

In a 1946 letter regarding race relations, Albert Einstein stated the following regarding racial prejudice and inequality: “The more I feel an American, the more the situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.”

In recent times, we have frequently heard so many state the exact realization that Einstein proposed in 1946: Silence is complicity.

Words matter. The first thing we can do as stewards of a threatened and vulnerable democratic ideal is to speak.

Speak in written word, in spoken word, at home, at social gatherings, community events, and other organized opportunities.

Speak about what equality means in everyday life, in our communities, and in public policy. Speak about what equality actually means on a human level.

How do we, as Americans, define human rights and the commonality of all people?

Keep the American Dream alive and evolving by narrating the story and defining and redefining what it looks like.

In the 1946 letter, Einstein posits that part of the foundation for a prejudiced mindset exists in the groundwork of a prejudiced tradition: a lineage of unconscious prejudiced thinking.

Einstein argues: “A large part of our attitude toward things is conditioned by opinions and emotions which we unconsciously absorb as children from our environment. In other words, it is tradition—besides inherited aptitudes and qualities—which make us what we are.”

Yet, as Einstein argues, we can rise above a tradition of an unconscious prejudiced mindset by consciously reflecting on what is just. We can continually create new and positive traditions.

Much of the progress in our society has been made by unraveling those traditions which hinder growth and progress.

This, of course, is no easy feat, Einstein realizes, but can be done with courage which will be passed on to future generations: “He must have the courage to set an example by word and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by this racial bias.”

Besides words, and the conscious unraveling of unconscious tradition, Martin Luther King Jr. formulated another approach to combating inequality and injustice.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. calls for a specific type of action: constructive, nonviolent tension.

King explains, “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

King saw everyone who participated in direct action, such as sit-ins, marches, and so forth, as Socratic “non-violent gadflies” that would help communities overcome the kind of harmful tradition that Einstein saw as a hindrance to societal progress.

As we consider Einstein’s call to speak, and King’s imperative for both words and nonviolent tension, we may all feel empowered to step forward and lead as stewards of our most precious democratic ideals.

The influence of a large movement, in our current political environment, like the Women’s March, illustrates the real power of non-violent gadflies.

Marchers, community leaders, journalists, and outspoken citizens will always be met with some kind of criticism, or tension. Yet, the result of the efforts toward a more inclusive and equal society ultimately leads to a more peaceful and just society.

In the face of a seemingly failed leadership, we can reflect on the ways in which we may become engaged citizens, and support democracy’s gadflies and stewards.

Diana Poulos-Lutz


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