Opinion: ‘If there was anything I could do’: Congressman Andy Kim and a lesson in leadership
AU students should follow Congressman Kim’s example
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Capitol building twice. For those who have not had the opportunity, I’ll try to explain how your thoughts become suspended by an idealistic sense of gravity and how marble corridors absorb the echoes of conversations. But this article isn’t about me, or us, or our shared emotional baggage of what happened on Jan. 6. This is about a trash bag.
By now, you’ve seen the viral picture - Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) in a full suit, kneeling on the Capitol floor, picking up garbage after sheltering in place for multiple hours in fear of his life. Kim watched the unthinkable happen. He earned a doctorate, worked for the U.S. State Department, ran for Congress, got elected and watched an insurrection happen. What else could he do? He picked up trash.
“I really felt like the Capitol building, and our democracy had been treated with such disrespect, that if there was anything that I could do, even if it meant cleaning up the rooms ... I wanted to do my part,” Kim told 6ABC. “I looked over and saw some police officers that had a trash bag. I asked them if they had any other extra trash bags, and they gave it to me, and I just started cleaning.”
There’s a lot that we, young, ambitious college students just a Metro ride away from the halls of power, can learn from this.
D.C. is a city of professional climbers, and I’d venture to guess that American University has the highest per-capita pantsuit count of any school in the nation. Ambition is good; it means somewhere inside of you, there’s a belief that your life has the power to ripple outward. But value as a human is not measured in LinkedIn connections and profiles. As college students, we’re accustomed to scrutinizing slide decks and papers. But, as future changemakers, we need to commit to evaluating our character as much as our work. I’m not saying that it’s easy to push back against a culture that has conditioned us to augment our sense of self through colorful boxes of text. Imposter syndrome is real. So, too, is the pressure to extend the arm of our digital identities to showcase every ability, aspiration or accomplishment. While this intangible presence can be a valuable tool, please remember that impact is not contingent on an audience. Your actions matter even, and especially, when no one is watching. One simple action revealed more about the substance of Kim’s character than a public statement ever could.
A significant number of AU students hope to work for the federal government, myself included – there’s a reason one of our most popular majors doesn’t stop at “CLE.” At this point in our lives, our focus should be on seeking out rooms that we feel lucky to stand in, where we’d be ready, and grateful, to pick up a trash bag.
“When discussing how our institutions should behave, humility is almost never brought up,” wrote Ehsan Zaffar, a Washington College of Law professor and Department of Homeland Security adviser, for HuffPost.
Zaffar emphasized that governments and organizations should strive for humility.
“A government or organization that is humble need not be weak or ineffective,” he wrote. “Indeed, humility is a practical attitude that can clear the political fog obscuring the reality behind important policy issues.”
We’re drawn to this idea, exemplified in characters from shows like “Parks and Recreation” or “The West Wing”: idealistic pragmatists with the self-awareness to understand their minuscule size in the grand scheme of things, the belief that they can make a difference anyway and the conviction to stand up and try.
If we value traits like integrity and respect in our institutions, modeling them at every level is the biggest thing we can do to ensure their continuity – and if that means picking up trash, then that’s what we need to do.
“What I did isn’t special,” Kim concluded. “It’s the same thing that drives us to volunteer at a homeless shelter or donate to a food bank: the idea that if something is broken, we can work to fix it.”
A few days later, nearly 200 veterans and other volunteers did the same thing, organizing among themselves to clean up litter in downtown D.C. Not because they had to, but because they cared about something, and they wanted to make it better. A lot of things are broken in this country, but trash bags abound. Grab one.
Alexis Bamford is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs. Their opinions are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.