/How to make America great, by Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams, John Kerry, Irshad Manji and more

How to make America great, by Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams, John Kerry, Irshad Manji and more

Mass shootings, #MeToo, family separation, climate change, impeachment. The world is dark and getting darker. Or at least that’s what it seems like from the relentless barrage of push alerts and Facebook posts blowing up our phones. In turn, we get angry, we despair, we withdraw. It’s a vicious cycle, with seemingly no reprieve.

“We in the media—because of our own need for eyeballs and clicks and profits—we’re not telling the healing stories,” says author Irshad Manji, who is among the people Newsweek spoke to about how to move beyond fear and begin to fix our ­nation’s problems. “We’re telling the stories of the conflicts. We need to hear both.”

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President Barack Obama photographed on September 20, 2017, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Goalkeepers Forum in New York City. Pascal Perich/Contour/Getty


Robert F. Kennedy knew a thing or two about hope. Half a century ago, it was hope in the future, hope in people, hope in our capacity to do better, to be better, that spurred him to challenge a sitting president of his own party and challenge the conscience of a nation.

And through steel towns and crowded housing projects and windswept Native American reservations, Bobby reinvigorated an American spirit that was bruised and battered and still reeling from assassinations and riots and protests—and hatred. And he had ambition, and he had moral clarity. He argued for unity over division, for compassion over mutual suspicion, for justice over intolerance and inequality. And standing on some makeshift platform, maybe on the trunk of a convertible or the back of a flatbed, sometimes speaking into a tiny microphone while an aide held up a portable speaker, he felt authentic, and he felt true, not stage-managed or prepackaged like so many people in public life.

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Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally in 1968. Harry Benson/Express/Getty

Which is why when you look at the photos and you look at the footage of that remarkable period, what sticks out is the sea of hands surrounding him seemingly everywhere he went. Dozens of hands, hundreds of hands, thousands, every shape and every color, the smooth hands of children and the wrinkled, worn hands of the elderly, and they’re all reaching upward.

He understood that it wasn’t blind optimism that he was peddling. Hope is never a willful ignorance to the hardships and cruelties that so many suffer or the enormous challenges that we face in mounting progress in this imperfect world…. [It’s] a belief in goodness and human ingenuity and, maybe most of all, our ability to connect with each other and see each other in ourselves, and that if we summon our best selves, then maybe we can inspire others to do the same.

It’s been 50 years since we lost Bobby, and because we still seem to be grappling with some of the same issues that he was in 1968, when I was 7 years old, because we are still dealing with poverty and inequality and racism and injustice and environmental degradation and a constant stream of senseless violence, because of all that, it can be tempting sometimes to succumb to the cynicism, the belief that hope is a fool’s game for suckers. And worse, at a time when the media are splintered and our leaders seem content to make up whatever facts they consider expedient, a lot of people have come to doubt even the very notion of common ground, insisting that the best we can do is retreat into our respective corners, circle the wagons and then do battle with anybody who is not like ourselves.

Bobby Kennedy’s life reminds us to reject such cynicism. He reminds us that because of the men and women that he helped inspire, because of the ripples that he sent out, because of the often-unrecognized efforts of union organizers and civil rights workers and peace activists and student leaders, things did in fact get better.

In the years since Bobby’s death, tens of millions would be lifted out of poverty. Around the world, extreme poverty would be slashed, and more girls would begin to gain access to an education. Millions of Americans would be shielded by health insurance that wasn’t available to them before. That progress is fueled—by hope. It’s not fueled by fear. It’s not fueled by cynicism. And this is maybe the most important thing: It’s not dependent on one charismatic leader but, instead, depends on the steady efforts of dreamers and doers from every walk of life, who fight the good fight each and every day even when they’re not noticed.

Six years ago, Lucy McBath’s son was shot and killed in the parking lot of a gas station because the kids in the car were playing music too loud, apparently, and she turned her grief into hope and her hope into a seat in the next Congress, running unabashedly against the gun lobby in the great state of Georgia. She won.

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González speaks next to other students during the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, D.C., on March 24. González graduated, but other MSD students are continuing the activism at the school. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

And then there are the Parkland students. It hasn’t even been a year since a mass shooting stole 17 lives at their school, but less than a month later those students had helped to raise the age to buy a rifle in Florida. They’d lengthened waiting periods before purchase. A couple of weeks after that, they’d inspired hundreds of thousands to march in the nation’s capital and all across the country. And, of course, they haven’t won every battle, but online, in the media, in the streets, on college campuses, they have become some of our most eloquent, effective voices against gun violence. And they are just getting started. Who knows what they’re going to do once they can actually rent a car?

Ripples of hope. That’s the legacy, that’s the spirit, that Bobby Kennedy captured, standing on top of a beat-up car 50 years ago. Those are the ­descendants of the men and women and children who reached up into the sky, trying to get a touch of hope.

The 44th president of the United States, Obama was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award on December 12. This is an excerpt from his speech, shared with Newsweek.

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Benjamin Lowy/Getty


I believe in asking three questions before moving forward: What do I want? Why do I want it? And how do I get it? My primary goal is to eradicate poverty; I believe it is immoral and a stain on our society. And so when I despair or get angry, I take the time to think about how I can best achieve that goal—and then I get to work.

As a writer and former elected official, I believe in the power of words. We must use words to uplift and include. We can use our words to fight back against oppression and hate. But we must also channel our words into action. We must lobby our leaders, cast our ballots and advocate for real change in 2019.

Discriminatory legislation emboldens those who seek to make us afraid, while giving those communities it hurts a concrete reason to fear. We must stay away from anti-immigrant legislation, as well as so-called religious freedom legislation that harms our LGBTQ communities. Inaction discriminates too. In Georgia, our refusal to expand Medicaid has caused undue harm to our rural Georgians, people of color and women.

Too often, our fear is sowed from an idea that our diversity is a weapon or a weakness. We must instead realize that our diversity is our strength; it allows America to be the rich and enterprising nation we are.

When speaking to someone who is afraid, try to find common ground on which you can build hope. As Democratic leader of Georgia’s General Assembly, I worked with the Tea Party on environmental legislation—so I know you can find common ground with anyone.

Abrams lost a close race for Georgia governor in 2018. She would have been the first black woman elected governor anywhere in the United States. She is Google’s most-searched politician of 2018.

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Joseph Kennedy III campaigning at Crivello’s Crossing in Milford, MA on the 1st day of his campaign for the MA 4th Congressional District seat being vacated by Rep. Barney Frank. Kennedy is the son of former Congressman Joe Kennedy II and grandson of Robert Kennedy Rick Friedman/Corbis/Getty


I wish it were easy to change human nature. Fear motivates, but hope does too. One person who regularly activates that idea is John Lewis, representative for Georgia, our most optimistic member of Congress. There is not an elected official who has been let down more often by people than he has—people who should know better and have his best interests at heart. He’s been arrested over 40 times and beaten and nearly killed. Yet he has lived, seen, fought and bled for the ability of the United States to change and become a more perfect union. There is value in that fight and pursuit.

Lewis was at a memorial service for the Mother Emanuel church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, listening to family members who had lost loved ones speak, and he got up and talked about forgiveness. He said that our nation had learned to forgive, and he told a story about how, when he was 21, he was beaten by Ku Klux Klan members in South Carolina. Years later, a man came into his congressional office with his son and asked for him. He said that he was one of the members of the Klan who had beaten him, and that he had come with his child to apologize. They hugged, and both cried.

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Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) is photographed in his offices in the Canon House office building on March 17, 2009 in Washington, D.C. The former Big Six leader of the civil rights movement was the architect and keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in 1963. Jeff Hutchens/Getty

To continue to get up and fight and to always say, “Hello, brother,” the way he does, shows that we are human, we are fallible and we make mistakes. We have the capacity to resist fear and be strong. We as individuals have a choice to make, and our country’s history shows that in those real times of crisis, we do try to be big and bold. When our Founding Fathers wrote that all men were equal, they meant rich, white Protestant men. We have worked to expand that. To help people like the poor migrants who come here seeking a better life, as my family did when we first got here.

When faced with someone speaking out of fear, call it out. Speak up. Ask the fundamental question, “Why do you feel that way?” Listen to those answers to expose the fallacy of their argument, so that you can address that underlying fear. If people are willing to have an honest conversation around, say, immigration, they might say, “We can’t afford it,” or “It’s going to displace us.” Those are statements you can engage in. Be tenacious enough to not let the argument die.