Ominous clouds hang over the United States right now. Some historians say America has returned to the 1850s, the era of deep, political division that gave way to a bloody Civil War.

We recently marked the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol to subvert the election,  an event too many Americans still try to explain away. Polls show that nearly two-thirds of Republicans surveyed don’t believe President Joe Biden legitimately won in 2020. This lack of faith in elections undermines our democracy. It should terrify us.

What offers solace amid this crisis, however, is work like that of the Kansas Leadership Center, which explicitly asks Kansans to care more, engage more and risk more on behalf of their communities. We need Americans to reconnect not just to their communities, but to each other.

A 2021 book by Heather McGhee, the former president of the nonprofit think tank Demos, suggests that this work appears to be the only path to saving this country.

McGhee used to lead Demos (Greek for “the people”), created to promote a “just, inclusive, and multiracial democracy.” Her book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” explores how inequality is killing the American dream.

Our only way out of this mess is together, she says.

That’s no small task, considering inequality was an organizing principle in this nation’s founding. 

We just need to realize that inequality, not our fellow Americans, is the real enemy. The real culprit. One example of this, she says, involved swimming pools and our racial caste system. McGhee says numerous municipal swimming pools in the North and the South were buried rather than shared with Black residents who helped pay for the attractions through their tax dollars.

This willingness to withhold or to destroy public treasures rather than share them with lower-caste people and upend existing hierarchies remains a corrosive feature in American civic life. It resounds in our discussions about health care, for example. Too many rural, low-income voters would risk death rather than support universal health care that would make life more equitable for everyone. Dr. Jonathan Metzl explored this in his 2019 book “Dying of Whiteness” with data arguing that the politics of racial resentment has led to higher death rates among those very voters.

McGhee paints a challenging mosaic of what our society must overcome.

Still, she sees reasons for hope. The white working class and the Black working class have much in common. If they united behind their common economic interests, that union could change the nation for the better.

The Kansas Leadership Center stands well-suited for this challenge. It asks Kansans to explore tough interpretations, engage unusual voices, inspire a collective purpose, get used to uncertainty and conflict, and experiment beyond comfort zones. McGhee isn’t the first to take on inequality, but KLC is unique in its charge and methodology. Leadership, it says, starts with you, and must engage others. Your purpose must be clear. Anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere. It’s risky.

We need people to lead. Now.

The real risk is losing our democracy because we didn’t act.

Mark McCormick previously served as editor of The Journal.

Cover about honoring black history in small town Kansas

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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