This week I’m dancing (as often these days) between the glories of spring and a multiplicity of challenges – global and personal. I don’t know about you, but May day has dawned warm and glorious as I dial between delight and despair, warmth and love and painful returns, allergy season and graduation parties in Harvard Square. Sometimes, the alternation can feel like whiplash. But really it’s just another normal week in what we call life.
At ALI, we were rounding off Module 3, trying to tie together a raft of models on how to launch social impact projects. We discussed multiple options, like whether you go it alone, try and be a convenor of existing organisations or start something new to address the issue. We had a session with Julie Battilana from the Business School who has just published a book (co-authored with Tiziana Casciaro) called Power, For All. As someone who has spent a career working with women who hated the word, it was a confirming delight to hear this articulate young professor explaining much of what I have mulled over for decades. That the people who should be in power don’t want it – and thus have to be encouraged, supported and promoted into it. Sometimes against their will. For them, power needs to be reframed as a force for good, an ethical stepping up, rather than a dirty word. The world needs new people in power if we want more representative leadership. But the strangest thing about inequality is how it makes people readier to elect exactly the wrong kind of people – the confident over the competent. And those are the sort of people who desire power.
This was echoed in a 2-day conference at the Harvard Kennedy School titled Healing an Unequal World. The first panel explored the politics of inequality with experts comparing the US, Latin America and India. The parallels in their analyses were startling, with growing inequality shaking democratic foundations everywhere and leading towards frighteningly stable authoritarian populism. That people who felt their own power had been displaced by formerly marginalised populations (women, immigrants, etc) were ready to elect strongmen who would do them no favours. The formula of these men in power was similar, bits of showy distribution at the bottom of the pyramid but no real redistribution of income that would harm the huge amassing of wealth at the top. Instead, the compensatory delivery of a reviled minority, who one could feel ‘better than,’ served up as fodder to the fury of the mob.
In related news, this week Harvard published a full and detailed report on its history of slavery. It’s created a $100 million endowed fund to redress some of the ills described, which includes outlining how much slavery was an integral part of daily life, and how four Harvard Presidents had slaves… it makes for sobering reading and gives a dark sub-text to the lovely campus where an Arts festival is beating this weekend.
In the background, as I was juggling between these themes, my mother returned to her own home on Monday, now a relatively powerless presence dependent on the competence of caretakers. Inevitably perhaps, the transition was somewhat traumatic, with the adjustment creating a degree of pain and fear that we had not seen in months. She’s happy to be home, less happy with the woman-handling this now requires. The indignities of constant care balancing with the comfort of a familiar context. One gets used to living years of elder care in a series of major and minor crises, ululating over the years in volume and intensity.
A coaching conversation with Power Women (on who’s Board I sit) assembled a group of senior Indian corporate types. I raised the issue of elder care and was literally blown over by the swell of pent-up reactions. Every single woman was dealing with similar issues, juggling work with ageing parents, societal expectations and a lack of infrastructure and solutions to an impossible conundrum. Far less developed in India. They raised the lack of discussion and preparation with their parents about later life decisions. Ageing had never been planned for, siblings were a recurring challenge, longevity was a surprise and these women were discovering that the brunt of the result rested on their shoulders.
But the week ended with my husband returning home and my daughter coming for the weekend, and the cosy warmth of contented togetherness provided a moment of balm for the soul. We explored Boston’s Contemporary Art Museum (echoing the themes of inequality as the installations focused on queer artists and artists of colour) wandered along the seaport, and had dinner with friends on the water.
Onwards. Next week? A deep dive on mental health!