The Lessons of Optimism
Notes from the president
In its 75-year history, The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work has spanned American eras—from the wary hopefulness of the post-World War II years, through the rise of environmental awareness in the 1970s, to the digital revolution now transforming society. I have been privileged to help lead the organization for 25 of those years and remain impressed with the values and attributes that drive our ambition.
First and foremost for me is optimism. Yes, there is no denying our fractured political landscape, the threats to the planet’s biodiversity, the societal inequities that we’re only beginning to come to terms with, and other seemingly intractable problems. Except for this: They’re not intractable. Our challenges can be met. And experience shows us how.
I’ve seen how facts derived from research can provide a clearer understanding of the issues we face. I’ve seen these facts provide the language that individuals with disparate viewpoints use to communicate with each other. And I’ve seen that intentional communication create the common ground that brings people together to develop solutions that are both creative and durable.
That’s what happened when Pew convened a multiyear study of U.S. ocean waters at the dawn of the 21st century. The Pew Oceans Commission was a diverse group that included elected officials from coastal regions, scientists, fishers, and conservationists. Its 2003 report found the ocean “in crisis,” with wetlands disappearing, pollution increasing, coral dying, and nearly a third of regulated fish stocks overfished. In 2010, the commission’s recommendations helped lead to the first national ocean policy embracing sustainability, which instructed federal agencies to work together on issues affecting the seas, use science to guide deliberations, and improve coordination with regional and state governments.
Policymakers and government leaders across the political spectrum and across the globe have—admittedly in fits and starts—recognized the necessity of ocean conservation and come together for the common good. Last December, the 196 members of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to protect 30% of Earth’s land and water by 2030, a major effort to reduce biodiversity loss that has long been championed by Pew and our partners. And in March, the United Nations approved a historic agreement for the high seas, long sought by Pew, that would guide establishment of marine protected areas and help reach the 30% conservation goal.
Nonpartisanship is another enduring value for Pew, which helps explain our interest in the infrastructure that supports our communities. While infrastructure still means safe roads and bridges, as it did 75 years ago, the pandemic showed that we often get from here to there without ever leaving our homes, thanks to the internet. In the past three years, we’ve seen how the online world allowed school classes to keep running, for patients to consult their doctors, our courts to administer justice, and for businesses to keep operating and their employees to stay productive.
But it also became even clearer that many Americans lack access to high-speed broadband that allowed all that activity to happen. And so, just as the oceans commission developed the facts necessary to create solutions, Pew convened experts and conducted research to gather the data that policymakers need to make a difference and to expand access to this critical infrastructure.
As with most big policy changes, this work is happening in the American tradition of interplay between federal leaders in Washington who have made this accessibility a priority with new funding and state leaders who have the difficult—but solvable—task of making the actual connections between unserved people and the broadband service essential to modern life.
Pew has been working at both levels of government on this topic. Far from just a rural issue, broadband access is a concern all around us, in unserved city blocks and neighborhoods, with cost and other obstacles preventing many people from having a service that so many others now take for granted. We approach this as an issue not only of technology but of equity.
In addition to broadband, an important priority for Pew in the coming years is using our expertise in state policy to improve other foundations of thriving communities: affordable housing, courts that solve disputes fairly, good public health data, and secure retirement plans for workers. It will take time, as most good things do, to accomplish these goals. That is another lesson all of us at Pew have learned: Big problems require big change, which can be slow. But as milestones are achieved, even if sometimes unheralded, progress is made. And, in the end, communities are strengthened and people’s lives improved.
For 75 years, achieving that kind of real change has been Pew’s mission. In this issue of Trust, we offer you our story and invite you to join us in our next chapter as we all seek to build a better world.