Making necessary trouble to drive change

July 20, 2020

Dear Changemakers, 

Congressman John Lewis and the Reverend Cordy Tindell Vivian accomplished so much in their lifetimes. As with many others of the civil rights era, they demonstrated hope when faced with despair, bravery when violence was inflicted on them, dignity and kindness when confronted with hate. They were giants who helped our nation take giant steps, yet they left this world knowing how much of their life’s work remained unfinished. 

Despite their sacrifice, America today too often means vulnerable access to the ballot, violent death at the hands of police, the pandemic’s savage toll in communities of color, and vast inequality in wealth, economic mobility, access to opportunity, and dignity.  

And yet, former president Obama reports that John Lewis was proud of “a new generation standing up for freedom and equality.” And Lewis himself told us he was encouraged by the recent insistence on deep and structural transformation: “We must be bold, brave, courageous, and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself, where no one will be left out because of race, color, or nationality.” He also said: “It is my hope that we are on our way to greater change.”

To paraphrase Senator Cory Booker, we must not simply “laud [John Lewis] with praise” but also “join him in purpose.” And as Lewis said, we must make "good trouble, necessary trouble" in the ways each of us are best able drive change. At the Urban Institute, this means widening our efforts to help changemakers—activists, policymakers, corporate leaders, and others—consider bold ideas that can more profoundly transform the structures and institutions in our society that, like policing, schools, and housing markets, consistently produce inequality. It means training more scholars in community-engaged research, treating lived experience as evidence, listening to historically underrepresented voices, and disaggregating data and interrogating their independence. It means new efforts to provide real-time data to public, private, and philanthropic sectors to help ensure a race-conscious, equity-minded recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. And it means exposing patterns of structural racism through analyses that connect policy choices—both past and present—with disparate racial outcomes, as well as helping design their remedy.

I am especially proud of the brave voices within Urban whose good and necessary trouble is interrogating our own institution, its norms and practices, to disentangle racism’s grasp, and ensure our work truly joins Rep. Lewis and Rev. Vivian in purpose.

As always, I hope to learn from you, and I welcome your ideas.

Warmly,
Sarah