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…All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days,

nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days,

nor in the lifetime of this Administration,

nor perhaps in our lifetimes, or that of this planet…

but let us begin.

—John F. Kennedy

With the inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president, and all of the mention of history and hope, we have been offered a real opportunity to begin again. Whatever your political persuasion, the events of the last ten days have signaled a fundamentally different approach to governance—from  ethical guidelines for White House staff to engaging with opposition party representatives in trying to bridge the gap and restore dialogue in the political process.

There have also been encouraging first steps taken that will indicate what the years ahead might hold as promising for social change and sustainability—clear positions around human rights, legislation passed and signed into law guaranteeing fair pay, movement toward allowing California and other states to lead on climate change policies, and an economic stimulus package that—if not perfect—signals important progress in addressing the current economic crisis.

We have an opportunity for change, if we are able to take advantage of it. As the political landscape shifts and we are greeted by government that seems more responsive and open than we have seen in some time, what is it that we do to effect change on a local level? Already, millions have become more involved in community service projects, heeding a call to engage more intentionally.

Yet there is also an anxiety that I have noticed among many colleagues and clients involved in both regional and national issues. There seems to be a sense that so much is happening now and so much is possible that—if we don’t act immediately—we will somehow miss the ship that will bear us and the world off into that bright future we hope for. While the urgency around and dedication to the work of social change is appropriate, we need to engage in not simply the ‘what to do’ but in the ‘how to be’.

Change does not occur through innovative policies and strategic investments alone. The opportunity we have been given is not only about access and influence in the way laws are crafted or dollars are spent, though these are strong tools in shaping our communities and our country in a more sustainable and just manner. If we spend time jockeying for position to pass policies that help us achieve particular goals yet spend no time honing our skills at resolving conflict creatively and changing the way we think and speak and work with one another, than the policies we support—no matter how creative they are—will not create the long-term change we envision.

The future we might desire does not yet exist, and if we focus on putting a solar cell on every roof and organic produce in every supermarket, we’ve only come part of the way. Such changes are critical, needed sooner rather than later, and can help change behaviors—but can still leave us entrenched in a political process that is about winning and not about dialogue.

I was also delighted to hear about another positive innovation in the first ten days of the new administration: a bi-partisan cocktail party hosted at the White House. More collaboration and deeper dialogue has to start somewhere.

January 2009