This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for government workers

It’s Thanksgiving week here in the United States, which marks the beginning of a season of gratitude. 

Per tradition, I have been reflecting on what I’m grateful for this year. If I’m honest, it’s been a challenging year. But amidst news of a “bleak” climate report and feelings of confusion and anger about how large numbers of my fellow Americans are kicking around our precious democracy, there are things for which I am grateful. 

Last week, I felt some of that gratitude.  I listened to the public impeachment inquiries on the radio as I drove to a meeting. As I parked my car, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was finishing up his opening statement:

Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.

Lt.Col. Alexander Vindman

As he read those words, I cried. Not just eyes welling up, but tears rolling down my cheeks crying. 

As a parent of a young daughter, I cried at the thought uprooting my family and moving them across an ocean, not only in hopes of a better life but out of fear of what might happen without a move. I cried for the state of public life and democracy in my country. And, yes, I cried with gratitude.

I felt grateful for Lt. Col. Vindman’s willingness to serve our country, to tell the truth, and to do so with a sense of duty, dignity, and professionalism.  A few days later, I felt this gratitude again as I listened to the testimony of Fiona Hill. In her opening statement, Hill described herself as an American “by choice,” and included the following reflection:

Years later, I can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.

This background has never set me back in America. For the better part of three decades, I have built a career as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical national security professional focusing on Europe and Eurasia and especially the former Soviet Union.

Fiona Hill

She went on to answer questions in a clear and highly professional manner. She was, in short, the epitome of what is best about career public servants. And for that, I was grateful.

Government workers make life better

In that moment, the gratitude I felt for Lt. Col. Vindman and Fiona Hill felt very tied to the impeachment. But as I reflect over the last year, I realized I often feel gratitude for my fellow Americans serving in public roles as career diplomats, government scientists, members of the military, planners, public engagement officers, snowplow drivers, and more.

These government workers are essential to our way of life. Because of government workers, we enjoy food and water without fear of deadly pathogens, accurate weather reports that help us plan travel and avoid danger, a secure and reliable electrical grid, and so much more. 

Thinking more broadly, government workers are also essential to the functioning of our democracy. They will also be vital in helping all of us navigate a path through the climate crisis with any kind of grace and sense of justice.

Lt. Col. Vindman and Fiona Hill testifying were particularly dramatic examples of how committed and principled government workers help secure our democracy. Their testimony mattered because it showed that many in government are still committed to the rule of law in our democracy even as they are tested by complex issues and others in government doing unethical and illegal things. Without people like this working in our government, it will crumble.

I was also struck by how the lives and careers Vindman and Hill described could also describe the foundation of duty and professionalism thousands of others bring to their work in government every day. And in this season of gratitude, it’s worth stating that I am grateful for these people who make our government and democracy work.

Government workers do all kinds of important things

This same sense of duty and professionalism is on display in many of the government workers Michael Lewis describes in his most recent book The Fifth Risk, which I read several months ago. 

Read this book to appreciate the value of government workers who take their work seriously. We need more of them.

Lewis uses the transition to the Trump presidency as a starting point to explore what three federal agencies – Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy – actually do. The book is useful for understanding how the Department of Energy protects Americans from various kinds of nuclear disasters and has played an essential early role in the clean energy revolution. It’s worth reading to better understand how the Department of Agriculture not only intersects with farmers, but also how it makes sure people at critical times in their lives (think mothers and schoolkids) get enough to eat regardless of their financial circumstances.

And then there is the Department of Commerce, which Lewis describes as a massive data department. It’s responsible for, among other things, running the census and collecting economic statistics. It also houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which collects, distributes, and analyzes weather data. This public weather data not only makes our modern lives work, it also saves lives in the face of all kinds of weather extremes.

Lewis explains what these government agencies do through the stories of the incoming Trump administration, who, on the whole, demonstrate at best little interest in understanding how to govern through a federal bureaucracy. At worst, these folks actively undermine the work of the agencies and, therefore, the security of Americans. 

Lewis also describes the agencies through the personal stories of a bunch of impressive public employees. Lewis describes many of these people, and one of my favorites is astronaut turned NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan. In Lewis’ telling, one of the main things these government employees do is help Americans navigate complex systems full of all kinds of risks. 

Climate change increases risk, which means we need the best from government workers

One thing that is clear about the climate crisis is that it increases risk. There are increased risks of extreme weather and related disasters, vector-borne diseases, and crop failures. In Brazil, climate change is being blamed, in part, for a rise in potentially deadly scorpion stings

And when things get riskier, I’m grateful for the people who help all of us deal with those risks. 

I’m grateful for the librarians who go to work in snowstorms to provide spaces of refuge for others in the community. I’m grateful for crop scientists trying to figure out ways to make our food more resilient in the face of increased climate and disease pressures. I’m grateful for career diplomats navigating international diplomacy, even as elected and appointed leaders rip apart the international relationships so crucial to our country managing risk in the face of climate change. I’m grateful for public school teachers developing their students’ abilities to act as effective citizens in the face of climate change. I’m grateful for the planners in my city figuring out how to make our sewer infrastructure work as we experience more intense rainfalls. I’m grateful for the human services professionals helping refugees make their way in our community, as refugees are only going to increase in number in a changing climate, and they are so vital for the flourishing of our community.

I’m grateful for great government workers

I’m grateful for these people, and more, who go to work every day for the public good. They make life for my family and me better and safer, as they do for families across our country.

So, this Thanksgiving, do ponder whether to talk about politics or climate change (please talk about climate change, it’s important) with your family. Also, take a moment to ponder how government workers make your life, and our country, better. We should all be grateful.

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