Episode 15: A Local Bookstore, Politics, & The American Dream

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Josh Allan Dykstra is a recognized thought leader on the future of work and company culture design. He is an author, TEDx speaker, and the CEO of #lovework, where they use technology to help heal burnout and create astonishingly great places to work.

Today I want to talk about something called the “American Dream” — this notion where anyone can succeed in life, despite their background.

Well, in some sort of grand ironic twist, I guess, America is now terrible at helping its own citizens achieve the American Dream.

A person’s ability to move towards the American Dream is closely related to something called “social mobility” —  which is essentially how quickly and effectively people can change their “social status,” if you will. 

Moving from a low income class to a middle income class, for example.

Ideally, I suspect most of us would like to see this kind of thing happen over time — that our kids will be better off than we were.

But a recent study from the World Economic Forum reports that the U.S. isn’t even in the Top 10 of countries with good social mobility. 

In fact, we’re not even in the Top 20. 

We’re 27th.

And honestly, I don’t think it’s really a huge mystery why this is the case.

It all has to do with how much we need a #workrevolution 

If you’re new to these conversations, I’ll repeat something pretty important — that this thing we call “work” is tied to absolutely everything: healthcare, finance, technology, ecology, and even, maybe especially, politics.

Work is the dominant organizing story of our lives.

So when I talk about a work revolution, remember — a work revolution really means an *everything* revolution.

Let’s talk specifically about the last item I mentioned a minute ago — politics — as it has a special place in the discourse, especially at this moment in time.

Right now in the US, and around the world, we are seeing a rapid acceleration in the conversation about racial injustice in the Black community. 

Where I live, in Denver Colorado, there’s a local, and I would say beloved, bookstore called the Tattered Cover. 

In the wake of the protests that broke out after George Floyd was murdered, this bookstore released a statement — I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Essentially their statement was a very well-written piece about how they have a long history of not standing up for anything — not for LGBTQ rights, not for less violence in schools, even though Columbine is literally down the street — and how they see their attempt at neutrality being related to free speech and therefore the right thing to do.

This response was not very well received.

Now, I’ll give them credit because after the swift backlash they learned quickly and apologized sincerely — I’ll link to that too — but their initial statement really made me stop and think.

Is this a “free speech” kind of situation?

I’ve heard varying degrees of this argument for decades — and probably said versions of it myself in the past — that I don’t want to “get involved” with politics. 

I want to “stay out of it” — remain neutral.

I even grew up with awareness of a general communication principle along these lines — that politics was one of those things on the “off-limits list” when it came to conversations outside the immediate family home.

Don’t ask, don’t tell.

But what I’ve learned is that this position in itself is a byproduct of privilege. 

To have the OPTION to be ignorant is itself highlighting the deep injustice of the current reality, because many MANY people do not have the ability to simply look away. 

As I talked about in Episode 10, our lives are in large part dictated by the systems we’re in. 

And oftentimes these systems have codified injustice, so a great many people have to stare into the face of an unfair political system every single day.

They don’t get the option to look away.

Which leads us back to the topic of “politics.”

In one of my favorite podcast episodes of all time — I’ll link to this too — a thinker I very much admire named Rob Bell explains the origin of the word “politics” — I’ll do my best to quickly summarize.

The word “politics” can be traced pretty directly back to the Greek word “politikos” which means “of citizens” and “pertaining to public life.” 

So, even though the word politics has been deeply corrupted — I think “politics” is seen as a kind of “dirty word” in most circles these days — as Rob puts brilliantly, we need to reset our understanding of what this word is actually about.

Because in truth, politics are about how we citizens arrange our common life together.  

And that is a powerful and beautiful idea.

How do we, together, arrange the kind of fair and just life we want to have?

And now, I think we can go back to the Tattered Cover story, because I think we can learn something important from this bookstore.

Essentially, we can live our lives as though nothing is politics except maybe a certain set of jobs concentrated in government buildings and in Washington D.C. 

As if politics are something separate and avoidable and we can somehow “stay out of it” and “remain neutral.”

OR we can live our lives as though EVERYTHING is politics.

That our citizenry is the thing that connects us all — it’s our shared common life together.

When we take this perspective, when we learn from the bookstore, we can see more clearly that opting out ISN’T an option, because many times the decisions that are being made in the “political” space are the very things that are hindering social mobility for so many.

The American Dream isn’t happening because we — me and you — have largely abdicated the role each of us — you and me — need to play in politics — as citizens who genuinely care about how we arrange our common life together.

Who care about building systems that lift up ALL of us, not just some of us.

When more of us see that politics isn’t something reserved for a select few but is the ongoing work of ALL of us who call ourselves citizens, I think we’ll start to see some real, lasting change.

And now is definitely the moment for that.

See you next time.

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