Today’s problems demand Eleanor Roosevelt’s solutionsRoundup
tags: Eleanor Roosevelt
Mary Jo Binker is consulting editor for the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project and assistant editor of History News Network. Her latest book, "What Are We For: The Words and Ideals of Eleanor Roosevelt," has just been published.
The 2020 election is just a year away, and the list of issues facing Americans is both lengthy and daunting: possible presidential impeachment, income inequality, immigration, global warming, increasingly invasive technology and crumbling infrastructure, just to name a few. Trying to build consensus to address any, let alone all, of these issues seems daunting, if not impossible, given the fears that surround our options and cloud our thinking. Fear may in fact be the greatest challenge we face.
That was the philosophy of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of America’s most significant first ladies. She, too, knew what it was like to live in trying times. Whether American democracy would survive the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthyite Red Scare or the Cold War were real questions for her. She could not be sure of the outcome.
However, Roosevelt firmly believed that fear was a dangerous response to a world in constant turmoil. It robbed individuals and societies of their ability to speak out and act. It was the reason nations stockpiled armaments and closed their borders. Above all, fear destroyed the possibility of constructive action. “People who ‘view with alarm,’ ” she wrote at the end of her life, “never build anything.” Instead of giving into fear, Roosevelt pioneered a four-step process of citizen action that we can use today to combat contemporary problems.
Roosevelt’s process started with empathy for the individual. Being with people fueled her activism. “My interest or sympathy or indignation is not aroused by an abstract cause but by the plight of a single person whom I have seen with my own eyes,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Out of my response to an individual develops an awareness of a problem.”