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Americans Can Do Anything… If They Are Just Asked

by JOHN M. BRIDGELAND

Sometimes you unexpectedly gain an insight that completely changes your lens upon the world.  Over the last six months, I’ve had that experience related to America’s number one challenge—COVID-19—but not in the way you might think.

The foundation for the turn of events began on May 1 when a private citizen—Tim Shriver—had the audacity to organize a “Call to Unite” that brought together ex-cons and ex-Presidents, Oprah Winfrey and people you’ve never heard of, and thinkers and leaders from different political parties, faiths, races, backgrounds, sectors, and countries.  The insights were so rich that a book will be published next year, with a foreword by Shriver and chapters ably edited by my friend Tom Rosshirt, to capture all of the wisdom of that extraordinary day, of which I was so happy to be a part.

In the weeks that followed the Call to Unite, a businessman, Ray Chambers, and a former Governor and U.S. Senator, Dirk Kempthorne, had taken notice and called me to ask if there was something UNITE could do to strengthen the COVID-19 response.  My first reaction was to laugh and say, “pandemic response is uniquely a job requiring leadership from the federal government.  Even though the national response is chaotic, we can’t create a shadow government!”

Reflecting on what UNITE had unleashed through private action, I called them back the next day with an idea I wasn’t even sure would work.  “Why don’t we start something called the COVID Collaborative,” I said with some lack of confidence, “that taps top experts and institutions in health, education and the economy to work together to help states and localities respond to COVID.”  The second person I called was Gary Edson, the Frick to my Frack when we co-chaired White House task forces on everything from climate change to the revitalization of New York City after 9/11.

The first conversation we had with a top expert was discouraging—“don’t you know collaboration is an unnatural act among non-consenting adults?  No one will want to collaborate.  Top experts don’t even collaborate within their own institutions!”

Not a prodigious start.  Then something big and magical started happening.  Instead of approaching this as a typical “policy project,” we channeled our UNITE instincts that Shriver had encouraged along—in a nutshell, “feel and express more,” he said, “it’s heart more than head.”

We started reaching out to former Presidents, Governors, public health officials, FDA commissioners, CDC directors, U.S. Secretaries of Education, top health experts from Harvard to the University of Washington, business associations, and groups representing black Americans, Latinx communities, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians.  Some we already knew, but most were complete strangers.  We channeled our passion as much as our substantive argument for involvement.  The result was as stunning as it was unexpected.  Everyone… kept… saying… yes.

The COVID Collaborative today is at the center of our country’s pandemic response, supporting governors in states who are putting in place mask orders to save lives, engaging in a 50 million dollar vaccination education campaign with the Ad Council, conducting surveys on vaccine hesitancy in the Black and Latinx communities, working with governors to improve vaccination distribution plans, and working with educators to share best practices to make online learning work better. Governors representing one in three Americans even supported a common, comprehensive approach across political parties. It’s a marvel—all the talent across the country that is working together to strengthen leadership around science-based practice and to engage Americans in their own recovery.

The experience reminded me of an insight I gained from a neighbor of ours in Indian Hill, Ohio.  Neil Armstrong, who taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati after he returned from the moon landing, didn’t like to talk about his moonshot.  But at dinner one night he said something like this: When the young President Kennedy issued that audacious challenge to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth within a decade, the country had no idea how to do that technologically. But it unleashed the energy of 400,000 engineers to make it happen.  I sat there looking at the man who was the beneficiary of that unleashing.

America is a big country, as my friend Hugh Price likes to say, brimming with talent and energy and ideas.  Instead of just looking, time and time again, to our political leaders to solve our toughest public challenges, and getting discouraged when they don’t, we need a new model of leadership—to regularly tap the creativity and entrepreneurial talents and spirit of the American people and her institutions to solve tough challenges.  And to do this without falling into our tired political divisions.

Our country is brimming with such talent and polls show the vast majority of Americans agree on solutions to most public challenges.  I’m a Republican and I was so encouraged that Joe Biden won the Presidency on a message of unity, character, and “restoring the soul of America.”  Let’s hope he builds on that good instinct, creates energy around tapping the talents of people and institutions across the country to solve public problems, and becomes the “American President” with a new model of leadership our country so desperately needs.

This essay was featured in the December 13, 2020 edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper publishes News and Views that Rise Above the Noise and Inspires Hearts and Minds. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

JOHN M. BRIDGELAND

John Bridgeland is Co-Founder and CEO of the COVID Collaborative.  He served with White House appointments for both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush. He is author of the book Heart of the Nation: Volunteering and America’s Civic Spirit.

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