That was the philosophy of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of America’s most significant first ladies. She, too, knew what it was like to live in trying times. Whether American democracy would survive the Great Depression, World War II, the McCarthyite Red Scare or the Cold War were real questions for her. She could not be sure of the outcome.
However, Roosevelt firmly believed that fear was a dangerous response to a world in constant turmoil. It robbed individuals and societies of their ability to speak out and act. It was the reason nations stockpiled armaments and closed their borders. Above all, fear destroyed the possibility of constructive action. “People who ‘view with alarm,’ ” she wrote at the end of her life, “never build anything.” Instead of giving into fear, Roosevelt pioneered a four-step process of citizen action that we can use today to combat contemporary problems.
Roosevelt’s process started with empathy for the individual. Being with people fueled her activism. “My interest or sympathy or indignation is not aroused by an abstract cause but by the plight of a single person whom I have seen with my own eyes,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Out of my response to an individual develops an awareness of a problem.”
After empathy came investigation. Roosevelt learned all she could about a particular problem so she could develop a solution. As a young woman, she researched conditions in New York City sweatshops for the Consumers Union, visiting tenements, asking questions and collecting evidence to help improve worker safety and increase salaries. She took the same approach as first lady, visiting the coal regions of West Virginia to see the living conditions of unemployed coal miners, listening to students and unemployed young people who were agitating for social change during the Great Depression and meeting with Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. After leaving the White House, she visited the displaced people camps in war-torn Europe, where she gathered information that later informed her work as chair of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and undergirded her efforts to allow more refugees to enter the United States.
Once she had the facts in hand, Roosevelt pivoted to education, specifically the shaping of public opinion. She believed that in a democracy, little could be done without public support. When people wrote her, as they often did, asking what they could do to solve a problem like race relations or world peace, she would typically advise them to get to know their communities, learn how the problem manifested itself there, develop positions, then work to unite their neighbors in support of a solution.
The first lady took her own advice. To address the problem of youth unemployment in the 1930s, for example, she worked with her allies in the federal government to design the National Youth Administration (NYA), a program to help students finish their education and provide work training projects for those who had graduated. She then used her weekly news conferences, her daily syndicated newspaper column, speeches and radio broadcasts to publicly advocate for the initiative. Despite criticism of its structure and its plan to include young African Americans, she persisted. It took more than a year of lobbying, but ultimately Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the program.
Once a program like the NYA was up and running, Eleanor Roosevelt made a point of visiting its installations around the country to see how it was working. These travels illustrate the fourth part of her program: evaluation. She wanted to know what impact NYA programs and other New Deal initiatives had on individuals. Were their needs being met? “Were they learning a skill or regaining self-respect or confidence?” Here, her goal was progress, not perfection. If a program or initiative failed, it was not the end of the world. It was an invitation to take what had been learned, improve on it and try again.
Whether she was successful or not, Roosevelt was wise enough to know that in politics, there are no final victories. Apathy and indifference were ever-present dangers. Hard-won freedoms needed to be championed constantly and, where possible, expanded. Leaders had to be held to account. “The price of good government,” she wrote in 1950, “is constant vigilance and the participation of a strong and influential people who want good government on an active basis.”
Roosevelt lived during tumultuous times. She knew history was on the march, but she refused to give in to the fear that stalked so many of her contemporaries. She believed that her concept of active citizenship based on empathy, investigation, education and evaluation would help fellow Americans navigate the uncertainties of their time. In our own era, when the political and social divide seems wider than ever and the problems even more daunting and intractable, when fear threatens to override the facts, her words and actions offer hope, inspiration and a practical road map for the future.