As a firm that advises clients on strategic communications opportunities and challenges, my colleagues and I know that words matter; but we also spend considerable time and energy understanding the context for communications. We believe that active listening is, in fact, the most important part of effective communication. And it has never seemed more difficult to really ‘hear’ than it is right now.

In this extraordinary time of pandemic, of hyper-partisanship, of systemic discrimination laid bare, we are working with organizations large and small on how best to navigate for the benefit of their customers, employees, shareholders and communities. And as leaders in organizations, in public offices and in civic life strive to make good decisions about that navigation, it is critical that we get as clear as we can about the context of this moment: We are in a time of reckoning. How should that inform our choices?

Like so many words in our culture, ‘reckoning’ can be a loaded term. For some, it connotes a religious milestone. For others, it carries the tint of blaming or accountability; for still others, ‘I reckon’ simply suggests an opinion. I use it here very intentionally and with Webster’s definition as my intention: reckon: “to balance or settle accounts;” reckoning: “the settlement of rewards or penalties for any action.”

We are in a time of reckoning: There are bills coming due. Some for hundreds of years of discrimination baked into the systems that drive our economy and our society – whether we were all conscious of it or not. Some bills coming due relate to more recent decisions, both public and private, that have driven income inequality and disparate access to opportunity in our nation to such a degree that it is clear not everyone has the same understanding of the ‘American Dream.’

As citizens, as well as from whatever positions of power we may hold, we have decisions to make. As a parent, how to help your family comprehend the context of this time? As a business leader, how to balance the needs of stakeholders, in both the short-term and the longer-term? As a public official, how to prioritize the use of the levers of policy and the resources of the public purse? As a civic leader, how to re-imagine community and redefine our collective aspirations? As leaders of advocacy movements, from Black Lives Matter to Feeding America, how do strategies evolve as we enter a time of reckoning?

The American experience has always comprised a unique blend of competitive, winner-take-all bravado along with deep pride in our celebrated capacity to rise from humble beginnings to achieve great things. Somewhere along the way we have lost touch with another part of our reality: our shared fate. Since our founding, there have always been – and there will always be – interdependencies woven throughout our economy, social interactions and families. The late U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, maybe captured it best: “We all do better when we all do better.”

We are in a time of reckoning. Let’s commit to the potential of our shared fate and get to work creating a better future for our children and their children.

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