This summer, it became all-consuming to keep up with the news. Some stories — the short-lived White House career of Anthony Scaramucci, the word salad that Donald Trump presented at the Boy Scout Jamboree — were amusing, although still disturbing. Many more — white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, a slew of devastating natural disasters — were simply tragic and terrifying. Through reckless tweets and cruel executive actions, President Trump and his administration threatened millions of futures, including those of transgender service members actively safeguarding our freedoms and DREAMers embodying our long-celebrated American spirit. And beyond the daily jolts of breaking news, our country remains anxious about North Korea’s looming nuclear threat and Russian interference in our democracy.
National and global events dictated the day-to-day schedule at my summer internship. I worked at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a nonpartisan organization that convenes, mobilizes and advocates on behalf of 16 national Jewish organizations and 125 local Jewish communities. We were constantly signing petitions, attending strategy calls, writing press releases and putting out action alerts. Sometimes it seemed like every headline rendered our planned daily agenda irrelevant and inhibited progress on our long-term goals.
In the face of constant frustration, many of our initiatives still had tangible, positive outcomes. Despite the polarization pervading our country and the considerable diversity of opinion among Jewish communities, we reached consensus on a variety of issues and repeatedly stood together in defense of our core Jewish values. Most notably, we mobilized our constituency in the series of fights to maintain the Affordable Care Act, a crucial contributor to Jewish social service agencies that assist millions of low-income, disabled and elderly people in need. With every rash “repeal and replace” attempt, activists from countless constituencies came out in full force, flooded their legislators’ voicemails and narrowly thwarted disastrous policy decisions.
Though we cheered each defeat of Trumpcare, we were so wrapped up in other high-priority issues that we didn’t have time to fully celebrate the successes to which we contributed in part. A few weeks after the failure of the so-called “skinny repeal,” it struck one of my colleagues that we had never followed up with the thousands of people who signed our petition. As a small staff grappling with a chaotic world, we completely overlooked the opportunity to send a thank-you note or victory announcement. Preoccupied with the latest emerging crises, we barely had time to appreciate our hard-won achievement.
In some ways, the high-pressure environment of Stanford is much like a busy nonprofit organization. As students who face a constant flow of challenging assignments and grapple with different obstacles every day, we often neglect to acknowledge our past successes. Those who let failures and ongoing challenges overshadow their progress will downplay their accomplishments and underestimate their own power to spur future change. Whether in political activism or everyday student life, we sustain momentum and fulfill our potential when we make the time to appreciate our strengths.
In that spirit, I want to first highlight a handful of progressive victories and uplifting accomplishments from this summer. Since I focused on environmental issues and criminal justice reform during my summer internship, I enthusiastically followed key developments in these arenas over the past few months.
Because of our federalist system, regression at the national level does not inhibit all progress. Many states and cities are stepping up to resist the Trump agenda. In addition to speaking out against the administration’s policies and supporting those most vulnerable, states are independently achieving progressive reforms in many areas, including the environment and the criminal justice system. In January, New Jersey adopted major bail reforms, effectively eliminating cash bail. The state now uses a holistic public safety assessment to determine whether a person must stay in pretrial detention, instead of freeing only those who are able to pay and jailing the rest. Under this system, thousands of people who pose no danger to society, but would have sat in jail simply because they could not afford bail, can remain in their communities while awaiting their trials. New Jersey’s innovative policy suggests that criminal justice reform does not threaten public safety: Violent crime between January and August was 16.7 percent lower than violent crime in the same period in 2016.
Such notable progress will likely remain in the domain of the states, but the Senate Judiciary Committee is seeking to revitalize bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts at the federal level. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, Republican from Iowa, and Senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic minority whip from Illinois, confirmed that they will reintroduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would increase judicial discretion in sentencing, reduce sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders and expand reentry services for prisoners.
While Trump continues to denounce the Paris Agreement and the Environmental Protection Agency works to roll back dozens of crucial regulations, California governor Jerry Brown is venturing into international climate diplomacy, showing that California will take on environmental leadership when the federal government refuses to do so. California’s commitment goes beyond rhetoric and diplomatic cooperation — the state recently renewed its signature cap-and-trade program, an ambitious market-based carbon emissions reduction scheme. (Congress narrowly failed to pass a national cap-and-trade system in 2009, despite initial bipartisan support.) Governors in the bipartisan U.S. Climate Alliance, which represents 14 states and 36 percent of the American population, reported in mid-September that they are on track to meet or exceed their portion of the U.S. commitment under the Paris accord.
Meanwhile, the Administration’s environmental backwardness is an impetus to action for over 200 cities in the “We Are Still In” coalition, a group of public officials and private interests that remain committed to meeting our Paris goals. Without leadership from above, these cities are increasing their local efforts to cut emissions and improve resiliency, which will protect communities from some of the worst effects of a warming world. Although environmental protection still faces steep odds at the federal level, climate cooperation won a symbolic victory in the House of Representatives, within the House Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. Often called the Noah’s Ark Caucus, the caucus accepts its members two-by-two — Republicans and Democrats must join in bipartisan pairs — and at the end of July, it reached its 50-member milestone.
The ebb and flow of political power demonstrates how general indifference towards positive developments gives leverage to those who are especially dissatisfied with the status quo. In midterm elections, the president’s political party often gets “shellacked”; in fact, the party controlling the executive branch has lost at least a handful of House and Senate seats in every year except 1934 and 2002. The midterm elections of 2010 embodied this trend: Many core constituencies in the Obama coalition failed to show up to the polls, while Republicans harnessed their frustration and flipped over 50 Democratic seats in the House. Those who agreed with Obama’s direction for the country organized themselves less effectively than those who opposed it, undermining the Democrats’ ability to translate their vision into policy.
Pessimism motivates political engagement more powerfully than optimism. I am certainly guilty of focusing on the policies that I oppose and doing little to uplift those that I support. Although I would have been overjoyed with a Hillary Clinton presidency, I am certain that I would spend far less time following the administration if its actions generally reflected my values. Likewise, as a New Jersey resident, I tend to agree with my legislators’ votes, but only once or twice have I called to simply thank them for their efforts.
National politics aside, the same phenomenon takes place at the institutional level. Last spring, I criticized the Haas Center and President Tessier-Lavigne for aggressively silencing activists from Stanford Sanctuary Now at a celebration of student service. While I firmly stand by that disappointment, I recently realized that I should make more time to appreciate the Stanford administration’s proactive communication and institutional support in the face of the travel ban and DACA rollback. Although Stanford absolutely must do more for its vulnerable community members, our administrators deserve gratitude for their initial efforts. Expressing support for our administration’s stated commitments, even when its concrete actions fall short, may increase Stanford’s attention to activists, inspire greater partnership and incite bolder action.
When fighting an uphill battle, optimism allows us to look over our shoulders and marvel at how far we’ve already climbed. Commemorating our previous accomplishments gives us a fuller perspective on the significance of our efforts, motivating us to work even harder. And positivity and gratitude are not only useful for activists as they seek to recharge for the next big political fight. Perhaps even more importantly, these attitudes are crucial to Stanford students in their everyday lives.
As I think about my own disproportionate attention to obstacles and failure over success and growth, a Billy Joel lyric from the song “Vienna” comes to mind: “Though you can see when you’re wrong, you know you can’t always see when you’re right.” When gazing inward, many of us gravitate toward our shortcomings and gloss over our successes. Just as I admitted to unduly focusing on negative political developments and the Stanford administration’s shortcomings, I will admit to dwelling on disappointing midterm results while shoving well-received papers somewhere in my desk without more than a satisfied-yet-cursory review of the comments.
To fully appreciate our time at Stanford and propel ourselves through its challenges, we must stop trivializing our day-to-day triumphs. Job offers, leadership positions and high GPAs are not the only forms of success. Whether it’s a new insight picked up from a lecture, an impressive contribution to a seminar or the satisfaction of completing an assignment, we accomplish so much by simply going through our everyday Stanford routines. Our day-to-day tasks are filled with victories, even when they are not particularly glamorous. Most importantly, we cannot let our failures monopolize our attention spans. Our successes, rather than sitting at the back of our desk drawers, should capture our attention for more than fleeting moments. When we take genuine pride in our educational processes and value our work for more than its sway over our GPAs, we will better recognize our own capabilities, empowering us to achieve even more.
Even when gratitude initially slips through the cracks, our successes do not expire; it is never too late to draw inspiration from our proudest moments. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, whose initial oversight sparked my reflection on optimism, ultimately recognized its opportunity and sent out a thank-you note to all who successfully protected health insurance through ongoing summer advocacy. The email highlights months of hard-won victories, galvanizes further activism in the months ahead and showcases the rewarding simplicity of putting appreciation at the forefront.
On any scale, personal and political triumphs deserve more than lukewarm recognition. When we treat positive developments as quotidian, we give the spotlight to disappointment, chaos and catastrophe. On a national level, our relative indifference to good news creates a harmful feedback loop. The media capitalizes on our fascination with scandal and horror, people pay greater attention to distant threats than local progress, the general population feels disheartened at current affairs and political power shifts accordingly. While there is much to lament, to fear and to resist in 2017, we are blind to so many promising developments downplayed in our national narrative: peaceful demonstrations, regional progress on climate change, powerful displays of interfaith solidarity, bipartisan criminal justice reform initiatives.
Ideally, we would not need to celebrate the proper functioning of democratic processes and the persistence of basic human decency, but in a trying year, we can all benefit from a little extra emphasis on optimism. Just as highlighting small-scale societal progress can encourage activists and catalyze further change, acknowledging even the littlest of Stanford victories can help us recognize our true potential and motivate us to fulfill it.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.