The day after the election, I posted t wo t weets. One read, “At United Way, we fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in every community. We stand ready to work on those terms.” The other said, “We’re divided! Healing will happen commu-
nity by community, not in D.C. Keep the Faith!”
Now, with a little more distance from the election results, I am
convinced that it will take the creation of more good jobs and greater
community cohesion to begin the healing process and strengthen
our communities. I’m also convinced that achieving this goal will
require all of society’s institutions, and particularly nonprofits, to co-
operate with one another and place the interests of all people ahead
of their own.
Let me explain. I’ve been working for United Way for 35 years. I’ve
worked in small communities in Pennsylvania and North Carolina and big cities in Ohio and Georgia. Six weeks after the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001, I became president of United Way of
America and in 2009, of United Way Worldwide.
During my tenure, and throughout our history, our organization
has worked with businesses, labor unions, nonprofit organizations,
and government. We’ve worked with white people, people of color,
rich people, poor people, and people of all faiths. We’ve worked in
rural communities and in big cities. And through all these decades,
I’ve never seen our country so divided.
Why is this the case?
It is because we continue to carve out the cohesive middle of our
society. First, globalization, which caused business to move faster
than government or civil society, weakened our economic middle
class, with assists from certain tax policies and advancing digital
technology. Second, through unchecked congressional-district
gerrymandering and partisan political warfare, we have eliminated
any semblance of the political middle in our country, certainly at the
federal level. And now, thanks in large part to this presidential campaign, we have accelerated the carving out of our cultural middle.
As a result, people are disenfranchised and frustrated, making
them susceptible to the language of hate that was normalized during
this election. Over the last 20 years, people may have been marginalized economically and politically, but now it is all too common to
hear people being diminished based on gender, ethnicity, race, and
A common refrain is that “campaigns are tough, words are said,
but now we have to come together.” Exactly right. Let’s come together. After all, the alternative is dangerous. But let’s do more than say
we’re going to come together — let’s take action.
What is our path for ward? We need to create more good jobs and help prepare more people to fill them, which will spur economic and social mobility. Good jobs give people in- come and hope. I’m confident that the Trump administra- tion and the new Congress will, among other things, focus
on short-term economic-stimulus measures. As nonprofits, we must
be prepared to support new job-creation measures, whether that’s
through advocacy, building helpful coalitions, or our own direct-service programs.
Any new jobs and opportunities, however, must be accessible
for all people. America is great not when we have macroeconomic
growth alone but when everyone can freely participate in our success. Inclusive growth is a precondition for national resurgence.
A brief look at history will help support my point. When Ronald
Reagan won the election in 1980 and began the modern conservative
movement, I was 20 years old and thought the result would destroy
our country. My dad was a Reagan Democrat — a union member
and an Irish immigrant without even a high-school degree.
Does that sound familiar today? Most of my generation focused
on Reagan’s personality and not his policies that emerged over the
next decade. It turns out Reagan was not a disaster. In fact, his presi-
dency is viewed as a success in many areas.
Yet while supply-side economic and tax policy may have helped
create macroeconomic growth, it also accelerated an already growing
income gap. Additionally, the deinstitutionalization of mental-health
services (because caring for mentally ill people “wasn’t the govern-
ment’s job”) threw hundreds of thousands of severely mentally ill
Americans on the streets with no alternative plan for their care.
With the addition of “three strikes and you’re out” sentencing
policies and mandatory-minimum drug sentences, the number of
people in prison, particularly people of color, sharply increased and
our communities began to splinter.
What’s the lesson to be learned? Focus on policy, not personality. Those left behind in the revolution that began in 1980 were those who were most marginalized due to a lack of resources and voice, due to race and ethnicity, or because of their mental challenges.
To succeed as a nation, we need more broad-based economic
growth, the kind we achieve by providing access and opportunity
to everyone: working-class white folks, new immigrants, all faiths,
all people. And we have to understand that some individuals
have inherent advantages to get ahead, making it critical that
we ensure all people have complete access to the education,
job training, and resources they need. That sounds like a core
responsibility for nonprofits to me.
There is, however, a significant difference today. In recent
years, and particularly during this campaign, we have allowed
for the normalization of views and voices that preach hatred,
dangerous nationalism, white supremacy, and misogyny. I hope
we don’t hear this language from President Trump and other
political leaders moving forward, but we have given it a platform in
our mainstream culture and narrative, and it needs to be called out
and eliminated from our society. As a community, and as a voice for
the disenfranchised, nonprofits must lead the way in standing up to
hateful rhetoric, because a society that allows people to be marginalized based on personal identity does not have a bright future.
At my organization, we will launch new goals to achieve what I
believe the country needs: a focus on jobs and bringing our communities back together. My intention in the coming weeks, months, and
years is to make United Way a leading force for inclusive growth that
leads to economic mobility.
Right now, we join with businesses, labor groups, schools, and
policy makers in places like Des Moines and Cincinnati to train
workers in the skills employers need. As an organization, we will
create or work with more of these regional development groups. And
we’ll do it while opening up these opportunities for all.
We will not succeed as a country if we don’t respect and support
every person in America and embrace our diversity, inclusiveness,
and individual rights and freedoms. That goes for white people, people of color, Christians, Muslims, Jews, straight, gay — everyone. We
bring our country back together again by creating better jobs that are
available to all and eliminating hate wherever we see it.
I hope other organizations will join us or take similar paths to
bring solutions to people who need them most, and that we will remember one of the most important messages of this election: People
are looking for big ideas and change. They are losing faith in institutions, whether those institutions are government, nonprofit, or other
segments of society. We need to step up, fight for what we believe in,
and work together to make our country a reflection of our values.
Let’s put all peoples’ interests first, our institution’s interests next,
and our personal interests last. Enduring economic success has
never happened without long-term, widespread success. n
Brian Gallagher is chief executive of United Way Worldwide.
Americans’ Needs Always Come First; Charities Can Wait
of United Way Worldwide