On privilege and leadership: Que viva Kennedy

So, I know that blogs and traditional media outlets have been inundated with coverage of Senator Ted Kennedy’s life, public service, and death. Certainly many who knew his work and life much better than I have provided ample tribute and considerable analysis.

I just have two things to add.

I remember a rally for immigrant rights on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building, listening to him speak and then to the rather amazing (it still brings tears to my eyes) sound of thousands of immigrants, most of whom spoke English as their second language, shouting “Kennedy” in a dozen different accents. Most didn’t know much about his family, or his legacy, but they knew what they heard and what they sensed: that, here, was a public official who wasn’t talking about ‘touchbacks’ or ‘guest workers’. He was talking about ‘justice’ and ‘America’ and ‘rights.’ That’s my first reflection on his role; at least from my encounters with him and with his office, while he was quite a pragmatic politician, he also had an understanding of his power, his electoral invincibility, and the freedom and responsibility that they bestowed on them. It was the only speech I can remember during my campaigns with immigrants hearing a member of Congress speak (in English, at least) about immigrants the same way that immigrants speak about, and to, themselves. It was pretty uncensored, and, to a community deluged with negative attacks and half-hearted ‘help’, it was renewing, invigorating, and redeeming. It was like a gift that he knew he could give to us, one that we very much needed. He did it again, later, on a conference call during some of the ugly negotiations over legislation, negotiations in which he central. He reminded us of the horrible stories he heard during hours talking with survivors of the New Bedford, MA ICE raids, and reminded us that that’s why we were in this fight, and he pitched himself as our ally in that struggle. When he left the call, there was an audible exhale and some nervous laughter, letting off steam. We were restored to fight on. That, to me, is about understanding your power and privilege and using it for good. Unpacking it, so you can exploit it. And it’s inspiring.

My other memory of Senator Kennedy was in a town hall-type event on immigration. He made a point of shaking the hands of several of the immigrant kids who were there with us, including one that had come with me. She asked me about him later–who he was and why he cared. In talking to her, I was struck about how much his life was not about the American Dream of ‘anyone can be a leader’ but a lot more about the idea that some have special responsibility to lead, and what it means to live that weight. And we talked about the scandal that had touched his life and career, about how he had almost thrown away his place in politics. And she was quite comfortable with the idea that, as she put it, we’re all human, and it’s what we do to make up for our mistakes that distinguishes us much more than making them in the first place. And I thought about that this week, when he is remembered much more for the good that he has done with his legislative career than for the tragedy of Chappaquiddick, even though that tragedy echoes still. If we hold that only those public figures without flaw are worthy of revere, then we’re, by extension, excusing from courageous service all of us who are flawed. We can’t afford to bench that many of our allies. We need accountability, we need transparency, we need honesty, but we also need space for redemption. In my memory, the student’s brow furrowed for a minute upon hearing the story, and then she returned her gaze to watching Senator Kennedy embrace immigrant families, nodding as she watched good decisions atone for the past.

We obviously can’t all be Kennedys, but we can all leave our mark–using the power that we accummulate as a force for good, refusing to be sidelined by the mistakes we’ve made, living up to our destiny to lead even as we’re still creating it.

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