How we got the New Deal, and why we always need a list

List, via Flickr Commons

My favorite scene from the book The Woman Behind the New Deal is in the prologue, when Frances Perkins comes to her meeting with Franklin Roosevelt with a handwritten list of all of the initiatives she wanted to push, if she would agree to become his Secretary of Labor.

It was a list which, for her, represented the only things worth taking on such a monumental job, so exposed to public scrutiny. For him, then, it was a sort of litmus test–if he wouldn’t agree to back her policy vision, he wouldn’t have her as his Labor Secretary.

For us, the list was nation-changing.

A 40-hour workweek, minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, a federal ban on child labor, Social Security…all radical ideas then that have since become core aspects of our social policy structure and defining components of the modern social contract.

There are two fundamental lessons to come from this almost-apocryphal story:

  • We need a list.
    Sometimes we advocates for social justice are so sure that the world is against us, so convinced that our causes are hopeless, so enamored of fighting uphill battles, that we fail to ask ourselves what we’d want if someone really offered us the chance. What seems impossible today, that we’d really like to have by tomorrow? What’s our list of our top 3 priorities, or even top 5 or 10, towards which all of our work, every day, should be focused? What would we do with tons of power, if we got it?

    Stop for a minute. Write your list, if you don’t already have one. Carry it around. And be ready–you never know who might want to see it.

  • Lists aren’t enough.
    In the completion of that same vignette later in the book, Roosevelt says to Frances as she leaves, “I suppose you’ll nag me about this forever.” (p. 124) Frances realizes that he hopes that it will be so; he knows that the country needs and deserves the changes she’s outlined, but he lacks the political courage or strength of conviction to insist on them. He has chosen her not just for the vision represented in that list, but also for the knowledge that she will force him to live up to his promises.

    The lesson for us in that is that, if we’re spending all of our time thinking through what changes we want to see in the world, we may not be cultivating the relationships and the power that we’ll need to see them realized.

    Imagine if all she’d had with her was a reminder to pick up milk!

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