Next Firsts

My daughter likes watching this DVD called "Primary Colors," in which college-age performers teach kids about having good character. One of the performers introduces himself as Philip from Virginia Beach, and states that he aspires to become "the first black president of the United States."

Circa 2003, when the DVD was made, I'm not sure anyone would have predicted that a black president would be inaugurated just six years later. But this historic milestone has happened, and with it comes speculation of when other firsts will take place: the first female president, the first openly gay president, the first Muslim president, the first Hispanic president, the first Asian president.

Much of the speculation tends to focus on when America would be "ready" for such a Commander in Chief. Maybe I tend to think too much in terms of leadership development, but it seems too little of the conversation focuses on how easy are the on-ramps into the pipeline that might lead to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In other words, presidential candidates don't just fall out of the sky; they rise up through the ranks. And if certain groups feel opposed or under-motivated to pursue the types of preparatory positions that put them in the running to eventually become presidential material, it's far less likely one will emerge as a candidate at the national stage, no matter how "ready" America is to be led by them.

The founding of our nation saw the prominence of a remarkable cadre of leaders. You could make the case that in our 230+ years of existence, we still haven't had better than Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison. But I think that's a half-truth. Sure, those six were extraordinary; but I think we're still in the business of producing some of the world's finest leaders. However, not all of them end up in government. Which is fine: you need to sprinkle your leadership talent into other sectors, not just politics.

But if, for whatever reason, people are dissuaded from engaging politically - too dirty, not prestigious enough, can't break into the network, let someone else do it - then we all suffer a little as a consequence. It is not unlike the argument that I often make concerning the expected vocations in Asian-American circles, which is that the world may be cheated of the wonderful contributions of otherwise talented and inspired Asian-Americans in other vocations if they feel pressured to not pursue them.

At least in the national eye, there are a number of promising black and female politicians who represent quality leadership and may be destined for America's highest offices. To find equivalents in other under-represented demographic categories, we may need to look more locally, as fewer have risen to higher prominence. And, given that observation, we may need to do more to encourage more people in those categories to take that on-ramp and get themselves in the pipeline, from which we may someday see more "firsts" at the highest levels.

Maybe I'm deluded, but I think mainstream America is more ready than most might assume for their highest offices to be filled by people different from them, as long as they are honest, qualified, battle-tested, and courageous. We may not need to worry so much on the demand side; instead, we may need to focus our efforts on the supply side, and see to it that on-ramps into participation are not otherwise constrained for all Americans.
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