With the Freedom from Want, the Responsibility to Serve

Evocative illustration of diverse group around a Thanksgiving table.

When Detroit, Michigan, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013, it became the largest American municipality ever to do so. The city had more than $18 billion in liabilities. Thousands of retired city workers faced the unsettling prospect of having their pensions and health care benefits cut. The options looked bleak. 27

In response to this unprecedented financial distress, some wanted to liquidate the city’s assets, including the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). In order to salvage city workers’ pensions while safeguarding the DIA’s world-renowned art collection, a group of foundations—including the Ford Foundation—joined together and worked with the museum, the governor, the city, and the state legislature to strike a deal. This “Grand Bargain,” as it became known, enabled Detroit to swiftly emerge from bankruptcy just seventeen months after its historic filing. 28

As of this writing, nearly five years on, Detroit is no longer on the brink of financial collapse. Many of its residents, however, are still struggling to stay financially afloat and build healthy, comfortable lives for themselves and their families. Detroit—once America’s wealthiest city by income per capita—has a 39.8 percent poverty rate, with the median household income a mere $26,000 per year. 29

Detroit is also one of the most segregated metro areas in the country, with 55.3 percent of the city’s black residents living in majority-black neighborhoods. 30  In these neighborhoods and others, far too many are struggling to secure gainful employment, access quality education, and enjoy freedom from want—the third of President Roosevelt’s iconic Four Freedoms. 

What do we mean by freedom from want?

At first glance, freedom from want is an odd phrase.

We all want something: successful careers, flourishing relationships, healthy and happy families. And no doubt, we live in a country—and at a time—where if you want any material thing, you can get it pretty quickly. Just go online and you can get almost anything in two days, delivered right to your door.

This freedom, perhaps more than any of the other four, is clearly informed by its circumstances. When President Roosevelt first articulated this idea in 1941, the United States had just begun to emerge from the Great Depression, the worst financial and economic crisis in its history. So one can imagine just how distant the promise of this ideal was from the lived reality of many Americans at the time.

Similarly, when we think about freedom from want today, it can be equally hard for us to imagine a world where this freedom is universally experienced by all, especially when so many people feel economically vulnerable in communities like Detroit.

The reason is clear. Freedom from want isn’t just about material possessions. It goes far deeper than that.

When President Roosevelt defined freedom from want, he included, in part, the ability to achieve what he called “a healthy peacetime life.” That “healthy peacetime life” means security and contentment—which is precisely why so many people from around the world are drawn to live and work in the United States.

Freedom from want is beautifully depicted in Norman Rockwell’s famous painting by the same name. It shows a family gathered around a dinner table, ready to eat. Toward the center of the painting is a turkey, the staple of a traditional Thanksgiving feast. But it’s not the food that’s striking; it’s the faces. Every one of them is glowing, happy, and content. This is the lived experience of freedom from want: sitting with friends and loved ones, celebrating all we have and all we can be grateful for.

In the end, freedom from want not only inspires feelings of contentment and joy, but also frees us to follow our passions, discover our talents, and cultivate our skills. No longer bound by the burden of want—of making ends meet, or meeting basic needs—we have the freedom to enjoy our lives, find fulfillment, better our communities, and increase our collective understanding of one another and the world. We are liberated to reach our highest potential as individuals and as members of society. That is why it remains such a compelling and desirable ideal even today.

A responsibility to serve

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of this freedom, despite the forms of inequality I experienced in my own life. I was born in a poor Louisiana town, and started life in a little shotgun house in rural Texas, raised by a single mom. Needless to say, growing up wasn’t easy. We didn’t have a lot. And there have been times in my life when, as a gay black man, I felt I did not belong at that Norman Rockwell dinner table.

And yet I, too, have been lucky to enjoy freedom from want, because of the generosity and service of other people.

I was very fortunate that my mother moved my sister and me out of that poor town in Louisiana to a place where my mother had more economic opportunity and was able to study to be a nurse—and I was fortunate that, even though we were by no means wealthy, my mother worked hard to ensure my sisters and I never wanted for love. I also was fortunate that, in 1965, a young woman asked my mother to sign me up for the first class of the Head Start program. I was fortunate to attend good public schools, to learn from good teachers, to receive Pell Grants and private scholarships to pay for college. In other words, at every step in my journey, I was fortunate because people in my life—and my community—took the initiative to sacrifice and serve, which benefitted me and many others in the process.

While we all have very different experiences, I do not believe it is too great a leap to assume that if you, too, are privileged to experience freedom from want, it’s because people in your life served you and your community. We all feel grateful for those people in our lives and communities—from parents and grandparents, to teachers and peers, to friends and coworkers and employers, to doctors and nurses, to public officials and unsung heroes—who, through their service, have made our opportunities possible, our livelihoods safer or more secure.

And if this is true, then just as people have served on our behalf, or created the conditions for our success, we have an obligation to serve others in return and extend this freedom from want, especially to those who do not have those privileges we enjoy.

This is true in our own lives and immediate circles. It also extends to our communities and cities and countries as a whole. When Detroit was navigating its financial crisis back in 2013 and 2014, I traveled to the city on behalf of the Ford Foundation. We did our part to help our organization’s hometown, a community that had supplied the Ford Foundation and our progenitors with the components for success. But for all the headlines heralding this historic deal, there was another side of the story that didn’t get much press.

One June afternoon in 2014, I found myself sitting in the Rivera Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts, filled with awe. 31  I was there for a reception, a celebration of new commitments to the Grand Bargain, surrounded by leaders from government and philanthropy, and CEOs of businesses—and I happened to notice two retirees sitting quietly at the front of the room: Shirley Lightsey and Don Taylor.

Shirley and Don’s names were not printed in the program. Reporters and photographers weren’t swarming them for interviews before and after the ceremony. They were representatives of the city’s workers, who, along with their fellow retirees, ultimately voted to cut their own benefits for the sake of Detroit. And because of their service and their sacrifice—and the sacrifice of tens of thousands of hardworking municipal retirees like them—Detroit was given a second chance. These public servants chose to do what they could to make the city—the same city that had given them their opportunities and their pensions—a place where the next generation could succeed.

When we think about the freedom from want, and what we must do to extend this freedom to all people in the twenty-first century, we should remember what Shirley and Don did for Detroit. Along with countless other retired city workers, they made a choice that was not in service of themselves, but in service of others. They recognized the opportunity they had to improve their communities, and they seized it. Now, more than ever, we all are being asked to do the same.

Inequality and the persistence of want

Just as many people in Detroit do not yet experience freedom from want, there are plenty of people across this country and around the world who do not enjoy the “healthy peacetime life” that flows out of the freedom from want. On the streets of Chicago, people yearn for an end to violence and for economic opportunity. In the mountains of Appalachia, poverty keeps families trapped, generation after generation. On tribal lands across the American West, freedom from want remains another unfulfilled promise.

Expand our view, and the same is true in places across the world—from the Kibera areas of Nairobi to the favelas of São Paulo—and for too many people forced to flee their homes throughout Latin America and Syria.

In these places, and many others, we all have the responsibility to serve. Otherwise, that grander bargain we made with one another—the social contract that lives in America’s founding documents and holds us all together—starts to unravel. As inequality grows, our agreement with ourselves and one another comes undone.

This inequality not only incites animosity and strife within communities; it threatens the very institutions of our democracy. A democratic society cannot truly flourish if the people, or any subset of the people, do not believe they have equal access to its freedoms, opportunities, and resources. To create the conditions for our democracy to be healthy and vibrant—to continue and thrive—we must root out the inequality that undermines our success. And to do that, we must first accept and embrace the responsibility we have to serve one another, to reach across society’s many gaps and aid those who are grappling with the debilitating consequences of inequity.

Forms of service and the role of philanthropy

Given the many kinds of want and the many forms of inequality that exist in our communities, we must be prepared to remedy them with different types of service. Each of us has a responsibility to determine how we can best serve each other.

For some, this may mean volunteering in local schools and community centers, or mentoring young, at-risk children in desperate need of encouragement and inspiration. For others, it may mean directly engaging with the philanthropic work being done by countless organizations throughout the country and around the world. The service we can contribute is often directly proportional to the amount of privilege we have—be that the time, the talent, or the treasure we have to give.

As the president of a legacy foundation, I often find myself pondering what it means for organizations like ours to make a concerted effort to eliminate the structural inequalities that prevent millions of people from experiencing true freedom from want. More specifically, what does it mean for philanthropy—especially those institutions founded by individuals who enjoyed extreme freedom from want and immense privilege—to commit themselves to rooting out the very inequalities that allowed them to exist in the first place?

In some ways, philanthropy is the best example of this relationship between service and want. Foundations like ours are the product of a freedom from want enjoyed by too few; and because of that, we have the ability—and the obligation—to extend that freedom to others.

I often return to an insight Dr. King had not long before his death. He wrote: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” 32  And while philanthropy’s role is not only to address economic injustice, I do believe that Dr. King gets to the heart of philanthropy’s relationship to the freedom from want, and to our responsibility to serve.

As philanthropic organizations, especially those birthed out of great privilege, we can’t simply concern ourselves with meeting the immediate needs of those we serve. In order to enact true and lasting change, we must address the root causes of injustice and the underlying sources of human suffering. We must disrupt the systems and structures that have conspired, throughout history, to rob individuals of their right to enjoy freedom from want. And we must use our privileges, and exercise the freedom we have, in order to extend those privileges and freedoms to other people. That is what we must demand of our service.

This fight belongs to all of us

Ultimately, the condition of our lives is intimately interconnected with that of others. When those around us lack equal rights, the quality of all our livelihoods comes under threat.

As long as income inequality, racial inequality, gender inequality, religious inequality, or any other form of inequity exists among us, the social bonds holding us together in what Dr. King called an “inescapable network of mutuality” will continue to be strained. 33  We will continue to be divided on the basis of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, and physical ability, while the “beloved community” of Dr. King’s vision remains no more than a dream. That is why we must root out inequality in our society. If we don’t, we will continue to see large subsets of our communities struggle to live safe and healthy lives.

But if we commit ourselves to mitigating inequality through acts of service toward others—to viewing the well-being of others as an extension of our own security—we will make “We the People” stronger than before. We will affirm that “self-evident” truth that all people are created equal, and are deserving of the same opportunities to succeed and flourish in this life.

So let us come together in the spirit of service, and implicate ourselves in the struggles of those in need, and truly become our neighbor’s keeper. Let us do the work necessary to ensure all people—regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, or ability—have the opportunity to live a “healthy peacetime life” that is brimming with the promise of freedom: freedom from injustice, freedom from inequality, freedom from want.