For the Civic-Minded:

Most of us can finish this statement: "With great power comes __________."

Great responsibility. With great power comes great responsibility.

You might attribute it to the Bible's "Parable of the Faithful Servant" or the work of Voltaire and the French Revolution. Many of us hold this mantra deep in our hearts because we learned it from Spider-Man.

The stories we tell have incredible power. They become a part of how we think; They begin to shape what we stand for. This, of course, is why we fight over them too. We have a shared belief that it's vital to get the story right.

In a 2009 TED Talk that went viral, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed "The Danger of a Single Story." She shares that part of the problem with stereotypes is that they are incomplete. When we accept a stereotype as the whole story of someone, or a whole group of people, we have the smallest ideas about who they are and what their experience has been.

Adichie reminds the audience that all stories are about power:

"How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power... Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person."

The stories we tell reflect what we understand about this power—who deserves to wield it and who will be powerless against it. That's a power that demands responsibility.

One of my favorite passages from Clint Smith's book How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America occurs in the Epilogue. He has traveled throughout the country, but it's a conversation with his grandparents that helps him see the bigger picture:

"When I think about the history of slavery and racism in this country, I think about how quick we are to espouse notions of progress without accounting for its uncertain and serpentine path."

An incomplete story may not only be irresponsible. It might also leave us all unprepared for the work of making progress real.

On Twitter this week, Smith warned of the ways incomplete stories become part of a month designated to celebrate Black History:

"Sometimes, people think of Black history only in terms of the trauma Black folks have experienced. But what it also important, I think, is telling the story of what Black folks have achieved, created, & overcome in spite of that. Both parts of this story should be told together."

(Read Smith's whole thread on this point here.)

A complete story sounds like a complicated affair. This statement, of course, is what any of us would say if we were the central character. However, accommodating this complexity might also be a simple proposition. There's the title of a podcast that continues to come to mind.
Last October, Jamelle Bouie interviewed historian Woody Holton on the Ezra Klein show. For the title of that episode, they used a showstopper of a question:

"Why does it have to be slaveholders that we unite around?"

We are a country rich in stories. We don't have to accept that story as the definitive narrative of who we are. That story has limits. We have the power and the responsibility to tell a better story, one that includes the serpentine path we have followed to become the people we are today.

Then, perhaps, we will have a better idea of what we stand for today.


Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.

—Robert McKee, author and lecturer

Let’s make it easier to start thinking together.

We designed our Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter to help you tune your attention to the questions, ideas, and good work of a political life worth sharing. Subscribe to get a copy and let us know what you think.

* indicates required

We will never share your address or any other information without your permission.

For Your Reading List

The Atlantic offers a profile of President Biden's "Likeliest Supreme Court Pick," describing the announcement this week:

"Like an air-horn blast at summer camp, the news of 83-year-old United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's imminent retirement is calling Democrats to attention."

There's a lot of prognosticating over who the pick will be. I don't plan to focus my reading on that question. Instead, I'm thinking of the many months of people have spent calling for this retirement and the public debate that occurred after Justice Ginsburg died in office. I've returned to the question of restoring trust in our institutions:

What can we do with this moment to build trust in democratic institutions, including the judicial branch?

To get a good sense of what has put public trust in the court at risk, review The Conversation's post from last July, "Should the Supreme Court have term limits?"

That piece discusses the problems of lifetime tenure and partisanship. A recent op-ed on The Washington Post suggests the 17th U.S. President was the first to propose a series of reforms. Andrew Johnson proposed reforming the Supreme Court in 1868. There's more history to consider on their "Made by History" blog, including a proposal that would require supermajority on the court to decide a state or federal statute was unconstitutional.

If you want to start any conversation about the court this week with some degree of uncertainty, consider starting here. These reforms provide a way to talk about the problems we want to address without getting hung up on personalities.

The Argument podcast on The New York Times offers a perfectly sober version of this debate, recorded in January. Russ Feingold, former U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, and Russ Miller, an attorney and law professor, disagree on whether or not any reform is necessary. Listen to their episode, "Does the Supreme Court Need More Justices?"

The show notes include an excellent list of recommended articles too.

For Believing in Democracy

A photo of the first Black nurse to serve during the Civil War. Susie King Taylor was also the first Black woman to self-publish a memoir. For Black History Month, Getty Images shared seven photos of "pioneering women nurses in the U.S." Keep with their them of "health and wellness" with Everyday Health's list of [12 Black American Pioneers Who Changed Healthcare](12 Black American Pioneers Who Changed Healthcare).

A Brooklyn-based photographer and activist documenting the "Everyday Resilience" of Black America. The photos of Russell Frederick appear in a photo essay for The Washington Post where Katherine Marsh writes:

"Frederick’s photos depict the strength, pride and interconnectedness that enable Black and Brown families and communities to step up during hard times, a lesson for the rest of America. Or as Frederick himself puts it: 'In this time of covid, in this time of Black Lives Matter, in this time of inequality, in this time of injustice, the images I’m creating of everyday people, as well as people who may not even be at their best, but they put on a brave face, show the resilience that a lot of us have just in our DNA.'”

Join our effort to focus public attention on better questions. 

Sign up to receive the next issue of Questions of Civic Proportions

Learn More