December 15, 2018

Ambushed by optimism

Twice in the past few weeks, my train of thought has been hijacked by hope.

I am not by nature pessimistic.  But for a while now my mood about America’s prospects has been grim.  Big money has swamped our politics.  Power has been concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.  Extremism has been mainstreamed.  Fact-based reality has increasingly little bearing on public discourse.  Institutions like education, the media and self-governance have grown sclerotic, pernicious and dysfunctional.  Faced with looming catastrophes like climate change, we’re – oh, hell, there I go again, talking myself out onto a ledge.

But two recent events unexpectedly heartened me, and that they happened in the runup to the Fourth of July has not been lost on me.

The first took place at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  It was a 90th birthday celebration for ” target=”_hplink”>Young Elected Officials network of ” target=”_hplink”>Seth Maxwell saw a photo of a misery-afflicted child taken by a friend in Uganda.  We’ve all seen pictures like that; we’ve all been heartsick and overwhelmed by them.  But it wasn’t futility that gripped Seth; it was determination, against all odds, to prevent that suffering.

For months he learned everything he could about the root cause of that child’s misery: water.  He found out that a billion people lack access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.  Eighty percent of the world’s diseases result from drinking contaminated water; every day, 4,400 children die from those diseases.  The long trek to collect water exhausts the girls who do it, keeps them from school and locks them and their families in poverty.  The tools of community development – health, education, agriculture, micro-finance – all depend on solving the problem of water.

“As a 19-year-old college student living in one of the most expensive cities in the world with absolutely no money,” Seth recalled, “all I could think was, ‘What can one person really do?’  I didn’t really know, but I couldn’t live with this new knowledge inside of me and not act.”  So he rounded up 7 college friends, they pooled all their money – 70 bucks! – to buy water bottles and they took to Hollywood Boulevard to persuade anyone who’d listen that water was life.  Seventy dollars became $1,700 in donations.  They used it to rehabilitate a well in Africa.  Their passion led schools and churches to ask them to come speak, and in a month they’d raised $12,000. 

So ” target=”_hplink”>Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at