Politics and Humanity

Mark Ritchie and Caron Atlas talk about balancing work and life.

By Caron Atlas

"As I have gotten older, I have been working on getting more of a life that is beyond my work."

"Maybe this is another area, the awareness of the history of movements within movements, of leaders, ideas, vision, barriers, strategies, tactics. This is something that I think might be useful." 

Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State, partners with township, city, and county officials to organize elections on behalf of Minnesota’s 3.7 million eligible voters. He served as president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy from 1988 to 2006.

Caron Atlas, project director and editor for the Bridge Conversations, works to support and stimulate arts and culture as an integral part of social justice. She currently directs the Arts & Democracy Project and codirects the New York Naturally Occurring Cultural District Working Group.

I met Mark Ritchie in 2003 when he was leading National Voice. I was impressed with the diversity of the groups making up National Voice and encouraged Mark to include arts and cultural organizations as part of the coalition. Mark immediately embraced the idea and I became a cultural organizer for National Voice. When National Voice ended (it was an 18-month initiative), Mark successfully ran for Secretary of State of Minnesota, an office that he still holds. When I began to think about this series of Bridge Conversations, Mark was one of the first people who came to my mind. His openness, flexibility, and humanity, combined with his focus and ability to see the big picture, make him a highly effective facilitator of social change.

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CARON ATLAS: I was impressed that in your work with National Voice you surrounded yourself with people who had different perspectives than you—and that you were very open to them. This included the young people of color who had leadership positions in National Voice. I experienced how this enriched the work.

MARK RITCHIE: National Voice was wonderful because it attracted a wide diversity of perspectives within a framework—everyone believed that mobilizing people to vote would help make the world better—not perfect but better. Political work—including partisan campaigns and nonpartisan civic engagement—do tend to attract a much wider diversity of people since there is virtually no limit to the size. Most nonprofits are small, and so it is hard to have much diversity or a critical mass of relatively different perspectives. While there are certainly limits on the range of folks who get attracted to a candidate or political party, it is more like a church than a traditional nonprofit. Almost every church, synagogue, or mosque will have people of different political persuasions, and those organizations have to be run with this in mind.

ATLAS: Related to your position in state government as Secretary of State and commitment to civic participation, what is the bridging role between a political leader and the people he serves? How can this bridge truly work two ways in a manner that supports participatory democracy?

RITCHIE: I think it is two-way if there is honest sharing from both sides. When I go out to give a speech I have to be short and to the point and authentic in sharing what I am thinking, feeling, believing. There has to be time to hear from others in the room about what they honestly think about what I had to say and what they are thinking about or experiences that can inform me about what I need to be doing in my job as Secretary of State—or perhaps beyond my job in the sense that I end up representing state government as a whole whether I like that or not.

ATLAS: What connections do you make between your work and the rest of your life?

RITCHIE: As I have gotten older, I have been working on getting more of a life that is beyond my work. Which is another way of saying that for much of my working adult life I have blended all aspects of work with the rest of my life and it has made me, I believe, less well-rounded, less grounded, and somewhat less effective in the sense that I had a narrow understanding of other influences and experiences of others. This is especially important in organizing where it is crucial to be able to connect in an authentic and personal way with others—in fact, that is all it is about on one level. So, I have learned over the years that I need to be reading a wider range of views, genres, and authors—I need to be learning from and appreciating more deeply other forms of creative activity/art. I need to be expanding my community of friends beyond work for lots of reasons, including knowing how others view the world ‘from their own shoes’.

ATLAS: How has this approach been beneficial? How have you overcome barriers and pitfalls? What has been your journey to get to this place?

RITCHIE: It has not been easy to make changes in life patterns, but I had the benefit of a life partner who understood some of these dynamics much earlier in life and so was supportive and sympathetic, and also my community of friends, including many people in other countries and other cultures, that understood the need for better life balance in ways that were helpful. I also had the shock of losing our daughter suddenly to a drunk driver—something that turned everything upside down and made me think about what was really important—among other things.

ATLAS: How has this applied to your work as Secretary of State? Does it help you in this position to have a more holistic approach to your work? Would you say that the political world is more or less receptive to a holistic way of working than the nonprofit world?

RITCHIE: I have not given this a lot of thought, but one thing I noticed immediately after I began to campaign for Secretary of State is that there are people in the process who absolutely do not understand the idea of balance in life and some folks who get it completely and who work constantly to make their voice heard inside of a campaign and advocate for keeping healthy, rested, and in balance as crucial to being able to connect with audiences and to being able to remain true to yourself. I think there are people everywhere—from big law firms to nonprofits, multinational companies to political campaign firms—who get it about needing balance, but perhaps they are not as honored or rewarded as some of the louder voices for 24/7 shopping/campaigning/emailing/working.


ATLAS: How do you respond to people who haven’t yet achieved a balanced life and insist on things being stuck into categories and boxes? What can we do when we see organizing not living up to its own values of humanity?

RITCHIE: I spend part of each day with people who are stuck on categories and boxes and then I spend the rest of the day with folks who have gotten beyond this. I think that one advantage of the political world in this regard is that if you make it your goal to win an election and this requires gaining the support of over 50 percent of the people then you have to be always thinking about how to expand the base of support and the coalitions of supporters and this in turn demands that your actions and words be about including more and more people. I am aware that some candidates do the opposite, speaking and acting in ways to drive some folks away in hopes, I assume, of attracting others. This may have been successful for some politicians over the years, but it is a dead end for the society and deadly for virtue and values.

ATLAS: What advice would you offer about navigating between fields and with people whose outlook is less holistic? How would you suggest that this work be further institutionalized or integrated into systemic change?

RITCHIE: I do think the trend towards teaching leadership (leadership weekends, training seminars, year-long leadership development programs, etc.) is a very good sign of both recognition of the need for coaching/learning/reformatting and a good place to begin the development of the tools needed to get to more holistic leaders and organizers. I am also aware of the role of travel, especially to other countries, as a way to get shaken out of our groove and in touch with other perspectives and with people that have found balance in a very effective way.

ATLAS: What should people in the arts know about the fields you have worked in to help us work better with them? What methodologies and experiences from these other fields can the arts learn from?


RITCHIE: Wow, this is a great question, and what is interesting for me is that I have thought about it from the other side (what I can learn from arts folks), but never really considered this. One thing that comes to mind is the idea of mass movements; I think that during the Great Depression some in the arts world had a vision and implemented aspects of it in terms of national arts activities, but I am not very well-versed on this history. Maybe this is another area, the awareness of the history of movements within movements, of leaders, ideas, vision, barriers, strategies, tactics. This is something that I think might be useful. How many spoken word artists know about the Last Poets?

ATLAS: Say more about how you have thought about it from the other side. What can you learn from the arts? How can the arts enrich the work you do?

RITCHIE: The arts community reaches every nook and cranny of our society, so in this regard it has a powerful lesson to share about inclusion. Of course, not every form and genre of art is attractive or of interest to everyone, but the sheer range of music available on a Friday night in any community is a testimonial to diversity and inclusion within a fragmented society.

Another lesson from the arts community is that it takes the investment of the whole society over time to result in a truly great artistic achievement. While there are born musical geniuses, most musicians grow up first taking lessons in public schools. Writers are not born knowing language and grammar or inspired to devote themselves to putting words on paper; it is learned over time and then perfected with great help from others. Safe roads and bridges, caring public servants, visionary leaders are the same—not born in a manger or fallen from the sky. As a society we have to invest in the future—be it the future of arts and creativity or the future of our economy, educational system, or natural environment.

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Hearing Mark talk about balance reminded me of the danger we face but often ignore, of losing sight of the better world we are working toward when the way we work contradicts our fundamental values. I have heard young activists talk about the need to redefine leadership in a manner that furthers principled action in all aspects of our lives. Those who grew up without their parents present because of their commitment to the movement asked whether our personal relationships reflect values that are consistent with our political idealism.

National Voice’s Latino organizer, amalia deloney, describes how balance is a critical part of a culturally-based approach to organizing. This approach grows from and respects “how you are being in the world” and takes the time necessary to “bring the human element back to how we communicate”. The humanity Mark brought to National Voice encouraged us all to stay grounded in our cultures and our values.

It is interesting to consider the implications of Mark’s definition of art, not as a solitary activity or an act of a genius, but rather as an inclusive social process and investment. It provides a good starting point to consider a holistic social and cultural policy where the arts are part of an inclusive and reciprocal social contract. His extension of this premise to investments in our economy, education system, and environment further raises for me the question of how the arts can be integral to a democratic process of systemic change.

Original CAN/API publication: March 2008