I feel for today’s graduates. They come of age at a time of massive instability, a set of tectonic shifts that undoubtedly contribute to the mental health crisis facing many young adults.
Jane Addams is a role model that many could identify with and follow.
As a young woman, Addams also experienced a mental health crisis, a condition doctors at the time called “neurasthenia.” Maybe it had something to do with the great social changes that were happening all around her in late 19th century America.
Massive economic change was underway, with industrialization taking over from the agrarian economy. A communications revolution was underway, with the invention of the radio and the telephone. Income inequality was a problem, disease was rampant, and racist hate groups were on the rise.
In other words, it was a time very similar to ours.
What pulled Addams out of his depression? She found her purpose in the contribution she wanted to make to society at large.
On a visit to London’s East End, Addams saw poor workers eating rotting vegetables from a dirty train car. The scene reminded her of a dream she had when she was a little girl: the world needed saving, and she wanted to play her part, so she built a wagon wheel.
What could she build now that she was a young woman witnessing the suffering so many endured in a time of dramatic social and economic change, while she herself was experiencing a disconnect that had descended into depression?
The answer turned out to be Hull House on South Halsted Street. It began as a way to meet the needs of recent immigrant workers and their children in a part of Chicago where well-educated, middle-class women weren’t expected to go. It has become a means of renewing American democracy.
Hull House leaders – almost all women – organized classes and activities for the children. There were hundreds of residents in the surrounding blocks, but only three tubs. So they built public baths.
For virtually every problem they discovered in their community, they modeled a concrete solution.
Youth violence and public intoxication were major issues at the turn of the 20th century. Hull House established teen leadership programs and a cafe as an alternative to saloons.
Tensions between Protestants, Catholics and Jews were high. Hull House designed itself as an interfaith space that deliberately brought together people of different faiths organized around ‘the fellowship of the act’.
But while Addams may have started by crafting practical solutions to local problems, she didn’t stop there. From her Hull House base, she fought for women’s suffrage, helped found the NAACP, and was a top leader of the American Civil Liberties Union. She wrote articles against lynching and was friends with famous black feminist Ida B. Wells Barnett. She initiated disease investigations that led to new laws and government agencies that dramatically improved public health.
Addams believed that America was not truly a democracy if it did not respect the identities and invite contributions from its varied inhabitants. She wrote: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, floating in the air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.
Addams did not place much importance on ideological purity. In the best pragmatist tradition, she did the right thing given the circumstances and the evidence and worked with people of all identities and ideologies to make it happen. This included people with opinions very different from his. Addams wrote, “We instinctively know that if we despise our fellow human beings and consciously limit our sexual relationships to certain types of people we have previously decided to respect, we are not only circumscribing our range of life, but we are limiting the scope of our ethics. . ”
America is in a time of meltdown and needs constructive social change agents to shape it for the better. Young people may find their purpose in serving their communities and may even find themselves starting institutions and movements that ultimately renew American democracy.
Look no further than the example of Addams, who started as a youngster with a mental health crisis and went on to change the nation and the world.
Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith America (formerly Interfaith Youth Core) and author of the new book “We Must Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy.” Him and Yascha Mounk talk about democracy on May 7 at the Chicago Humanities Festival.
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