Economic development · Education · New York City · Personal Essays

How to be an optimist while remaining critical?

Yesterday, a website I write for called Dowser ran a story I did about two initiatives the Obama administration has launched to solve widespread national problems: StartupAmerica and LetsMove!/ChooseMyPlate. I wrote it because I wanted to turn the eye of “solutions journalism” toward government. So many solutions take place at the grassroots level, with private donations and non-institutional forms of collaboration. But, I wanted to know, what is our government doing to make things easier for us?

StartUpAmerica is a promising program that mobilizes innovative platforms like IndieGoGo to stimulate entrepreneurship, but LetsMove/ChooseMyPlate fails to impress me. Neither of these programs is truly large-scale. I felt even more jaded about these initiatives today, when I read Frank Rich’s article in New York Magazine about Obama’s inefficacy in or unwillingness to remove impunity from the bankers who launched us into this economic recession.

As public funding cuts occur nationally, while New York City’s public education and infrastructure systems lay off employees and/or reside in fiscal crisis, the banks continue to enjoy the benefits of an agreement between Wall Street and the White House that capitalist profit goes unchecked in this country. This makes me wonder: are programs like StartUpAmerica nothing more than a cutesy little band-aid on a massive, gaping wound? When government neglects to deal with problems on a large scale, is this how they appease us?

I find it disheartening to look at my own writing in the vein of “solutions journalism” in that way. But how, given the reluctance – no, the refusal – of government to look at the needs of Main Street over those of Wall Street can I celebrate the many grassroots efforts out there to make our cities greener, our economy more robust, and our society more equal?

Perhaps I should be glad that we live in a world where people take the responsibility upon themselves to improve what they see as failing. Regardless of the injustices occurring at the national and international levels, people refuse to deny their own agency and intelligence. And that is why, I believe, we are seeing a surge of social entrepreneurship during this economic recession. It’s an awakening – government isn’t going to save us! We have to do it ourselves.

That all sounds very empowered and forward-looking. Except that, actually, we shouldn’t have to do it all ourselves. We elect these leaders. We pay their salaries. We fork over money from our earnings – our honest earnings – so they can go play oil war in the Middle East instead of strengthening our nation’s education system or investing in green energy.

And so while I continue to be amazed at all the individuals and organizations out there who are taking matters into their own hands – crowdfunding, organizing, creating, innovating – I lament that the most powerful institution we ascribe to is leading us in the other directions: wastefulness, inequality, ignorance, and the same old problems over and over again.

4 thoughts on “How to be an optimist while remaining critical?

  1. Nice point, Rachel…begs even more for Solution Journalist to take the role of investigative journalists – to really discern whether or not government initiatives are just “little bandaids.”

    The balance between small-scale and large-scale is definitely an intriguing and tricky one. My friend is studying for a Master’s in Public Health right now, and we’ve had more arguments than I can count on the effectiveness and need for such tiny, grassroots programs. She has a point: plurality in the social sector is needless and somewhat counterproductive.

    At the same time, I think all this activity breeds innovation; and that the urgency behind this movement is almost as important as the actions themselves.

    Maybe what we need are more organizations like Peace Dividend Trust — it’s sort of a watchdog/ catalyst group that tries to make government programs more efficient. Here’s their site: And here’s a Dowser article about them:

    Anyway – intriguing topic! Keep blogging on it!

  2. Hi Rachel, Michael here. (chuckle) It does not appear that you’re a (((Obama))) fan or his administration fan. As I flipped through your posts, sipping on coffee this morning and eagerly thought about your question: “what is our government doing to make things easier for us?” which I think is a good question but not good enough to spur my appetite like “iterate, iterate, iterate.”

    The term “Complexity” has been trending since the 1970’s and I think because of the internet we have more facts, more facts about the government makes it easier to expose their inefficiency etc. So, not to be disheartened my friend and keep doing what you do best.

    Find the solutions.


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