Reflections from Democracy Forward President & CEO Skye Perryman:
“What people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”
-The Honorable Barbara Jordan
A few weeks ago, I was honored to join U.S. Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic George Tsunis, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and other leaders from across the globe at the Partners in Democracy Symposium in Athens, Greece. It was awe-inspiring and humbling to explore democracy’s past at its birthplace in Athens and to reflect on the future that we at Democracy Forward work every day to help achieve.
The Embassy and sponsors of the Partners in Democracy Symposium asked me to participate in a panel at the symposium entitled, “What is Real? Democracy, Technology and Media.”
I highlighted the need for our democratic institutions to become stronger and more resilient on an accelerated time frame and the risks we face now when our institutions are regressing and technology is exponentially advancing. For instance, a lack of equitable access to technology can restrict people’s understanding of political, social and economic issues at the very time that new technology allows anti-democratic forces to target with precision those they want to manipulate with disinformation.
To be in Athens discussing the challenges democracy faces today requires a realization that democracy has always been an idea and an aspiration that has fallen short of its promise. The Acropolis and other structures from ancient Greece were built by people excluded from political participation and who were enslaved. Women and those who were considered outsiders were excluded from democracy in ancient Greece.
And, those struggles aren’t things of the past. Ambassador Tsunis noted that the promise of democracy is far from realized: “We’re promised a more perfect Union. We’re not there yet.” He added, “but every day we try to be a little better, every day we try to be that beacon, that beacon of hope.” I hope that is true of our institutions; I know that is true of the American people.
Along with the symposium, an office of the US State Department, Art in Embassies, launched its incredible new global exhibit, “A More Perfect Union: American Artists and the Currents of Our Time” at the Acropolis Museum.
The launch marked the first time that American art has been featured in the museum. Visiting the ruins of ancient Athens, one can’t miss the essential and symbiotic relationship between democracy and artistic expression. The traveling exhibit will help open the world’s eyes to that connection.
A More Perfect Union features a reinterpretation of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms (Freedom from Fear, Freedom from Want, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship) that artists Hank Willis Thomas, Emily Shur, Eric Gottesman, and Wyatt Gallery have depicted. As Thomas told the New York Times, in Rockwell’s time, the pieces leave you thinking that “what it meant to be American was white Anglo-Saxon.” In contrast, the new work reflects the diversity and complexity of America. Two men comfort their twin children to demonstrate freedom from fear. A multi-racial family shares a Thanksgiving meal to illustrate freedom from want. People of diverse faiths and backgrounds pray together in the illustration of freedom of religion. And a new take on the town hall is expressed as freedom of speech.
Another portion of the exhibit featured Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s wise words, which we often use at Democracy Forward, “What people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.” They do.
I reflect on these words and the works in A More Perfect Union as we approach July 4th and are all continuing to process the final days of the Supreme Court’s term – where the Court for the first time in history, granted a business a constitutional right to openly refuse to serve LGBTQ+ people, hampered the ability of colleges and universities to consider one’s racial background in its admissions, and blocked debt relief for millions of students. There is a long way to go for us to make good on America’s promise.
In our work every day at Democracy Forward, we see people who represent the very fabric of American democracy — voters, teachers, students, parents, researchers, doctors, nurses, conservationists, business-owners, religious and spiritual communities, journalists, scholars, social workers, community volunteers, and so many more — using their platforms to help advance an inclusive, bold, and vibrant democracy for all people.
In Arkansas and Florida, we are representing teachers, parents, and librarians in Arkansas and Florida who are determined to beat harmful censorship agendas through legal action. In West Virginia, our client GenBioPro, the generic manufacturer of mifepristone, is fighting to ensure that its evidence-based reproductive healthcare medication not be banned. Doctors in Ohio are using their voices in court. Parents in Mississippi are fighting for their public schools. And, individual people are using their power and voices across the country in Texas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Kansas, to name just a few.
At Democracy Forward, we know that the work for democracy is not the work of the past; it is the work of this generation and this moment. We must ensure that our government and institutions work for all people, not just for the most privileged.
Or, as Justice Breyer shared with an audience of law students in Athens, we must make the rule of law for everybody, not just for the few.
As we approach July 4th, let us recommit to the work of democracy – where laws and courts advance justice for all and are not tools of regression and discrimination, and where our institutions represent and work for all of us. At Democracy Forward, we will continue to use the law to fight for a bold and vibrant democracy for all people. We know however hard the odds are now, they have been overcome before. Our work reminds us every day that achieving a democracy as good as its promise is worth the fight.