Swan Song for a Hard Year

Western States Center
6 min readDec 16, 2021

By Eric K. Ward

The highs and lows of democratic practice in 2021 began with the definitive and historic election of Biden-Harris followed by the January 6 insurrection and the inauguration it couldn’t stop.
(Photo Credit: DoD photo by U.S. Army Private 1st Class Laura Hardin)

As we prepare to say farewell to 2021, take a minute to remember a year ago, when Fox News declared the Biden-Harris victory and Republican leaders conceded defeat. So many of us who had been hurt and horrified by four years of President Trump felt a sense of exhausted relief.

Slow down as you read this, close your eyes, breathe a deeper breath. Remember what it felt like to taste the end of the Trump presidency?

Those who had worked so hard to turn out the vote and protect the safety of poll workers and voters felt a sense of empowerment. We who are committed to defending inclusive democracy dared to feel a moment of hope. Remember those feelings?

That all changed on January 6. Two weeks after that day of terror came more exhausted relief, another moment of guarded hope at the Inauguration that almost didn’t happen: President Biden naming the pandemic and systemic racism, climate emergency and “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat” as our country’s top four challenges.

And that was just the first 20 days of 2021.

It’s been a hard year — as Matthew Ryan and Pines at Night expressed so beautifully in Song for a Hard Year.

You don’t need me to recount all that’s been hard in 2021. All the lives taken by COVID-19, poverty and racial inequities, climate crisis, overdose and suicide, police and gun violence. The attacks on educators and health care workers. I’ll stop there, because I know you can hear it all too well — the funeral dirge and emergency sirens in the soundtrack of 2021.

Our recent Democracy Alert: Year in Review carries the strains of both doom metal and patriotic power anthem as it recounts a year of anti-democracy forces and the work of Western States Center and our allies to counter them. We noted there, the openly bigoted and authoritarian violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 proved hugely motivating for white nationalist and paramilitary movements, even in the face of the five immediate deaths and the four police officers who died by suicide in the aftermath, and the 675 insurrectionists who’ve been charged (I’m told People magazine described this as “the largest criminal investigation in American history”). If you’re not already receiving our regular Democracy Alert, I encourage you to sign up here.

The year wasn’t all downbeats, of course. There were the incredible harmonies of unexpected voices coming together around shared values. The love songs to the America we could still become. Here at Western States Center, we are proud to have played our small part in the steady drumbeat for inclusive democracy through:

  • Highlighting the relationship of antisemitism to white nationalism and anti-Black racism, we continued to raise awareness that we all have Skin in the Game in the face of rising antisemitism. Along with over dozens of trainings and talks on the topic, we piloted a campus program on “Israel, Palestine, and the Politics of Division Here at Home”; partnered with Southern Poverty Law Center on a special convening; and incorporated a 12-week online course, “Where Do Jews Fit in America’s World of Difference?” with Prof. Eric L. Goldstein of Emory University into our internal continuing education series.
  • Thirty-two rapid response interventions including the successful push for the bipartisan expulsion of Rep. Mike Nearman for aiding far-right extremists in their insurrection rehearsal attack on the Oregon Capitol Building in December 2020; and supporting leaders countering anti-democracy threats in eight municipalities across three states.
  • Galvanizing elected, community and business leaders through values-based sign-on campaigns including Defend Democracy, Not Sedition, United Against Hate and Political Violence on May Day, Oregonians Together for Inclusive Democracy, and Coloradans for Voter Freedom.
  • Creating new tools and sustaining 10 innovative cohorts and networks such as a national table to counter policy expressions of white nationalism and anti-immigrant bigotry inside the Beltway, a new Idaho Inclusive Democracy Table, and our ongoing engagement with educators, artists, and anti-hate, anti-extremism and racial equity leaders.
  • Lifting up the artists who help us re-imagine the common ground from which inclusive democracy can grow, through support for a range of community projects like Music City Bands Together and continued work with the 35 artists in our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab and Common Ground Masterclass, four of whom earned For Your Consideration Grammy nods this year. (Spend some time in our AMP Artists Gallery!)
  • Joining with more than 330 partners — international, national, regional, statewide, and local organizations, elected and community leaders — and leading or participating in three national multi-disciplinary tables.
  • Delivering nearly 200 educational presentations reaching nearly 90,000 participants, including our biennial AMP: Activists Mobilizing for Power, which featured 18 sessions led by 62 presenters.
  • Shaping the narrative through hundreds of press hits (dozens syndicated nationally), a press briefing, and regular Medium essays.
  • Highlighting the emerging movement to preserve democracy in the U.S. through accepting the first Civil Courage Prize ever awarded to an American.

You’ll hear more about what we accomplished with our many partners and supporters in our upcoming Report to the Community. This work is fueled by increasing interest from donors. In 2021 we were supported by 36 organizational funders, including 10 new to us this year and over $100k in donor advised fund contributions. Our 2022 budget is set for $3.5m, more than four times the budget when I joined Western States four years ago. The demand for our work is strong and growing.

What we accomplished in this tough year is just the tip of the iceberg. Even as we produced volumes of visible work in 2021, we devoted countless hours to dreaming up and building the scaffolding for a new portfolio of projects rolling out in 2022.

Here’s a preview of coming attractions:

  • A new toolkit for local and regional leaders: Strengthening Local Government Response to Political Violence.
  • A series of convenings guided by South Africans whose distinguishing approach to building democracy helped usher in one Africa’s smoothest transitions, despite a surge in violence in the years leading up to the formal end of apartheid.
  • No on 9 Remembered: a historical narrative project to lift up the lessons of Oregon’s 1992 ballot measure campaign for today’s fight for inclusive democracy.
  • A digital toolkit for artists produced by our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab along with regional artists cohorts and a new national cohort for artists of color.
  • New podcasts and webinar series, along with educational and organizing tools for educators, libraries, parents and caregivers, and community members.
  • Continuing our movement building, leadership development, culture shift, and defending democracy work through cohorts and networks, rapid response campaigns, and an exciting array of Senior Fellows’ initiatives and partnerships with other organizations.

We hope this glimpse of 2022 gives you a little lift, like the snatches of a song you know you want to hear more of… a song that energizes you when it comes back around, full volume in the new year.

For now, it’s time for a lullaby, some sweet soothing that supports a time of rest. We know it’s been a hard year. A year filled with loss and horror. A year driven by urgent purpose and dedication. It’s time to take a break. We encourage it. We demand it.

It’s time to rest and reflect on the year to come. To be in good company. To share our stories. To sing a song of freedom, a love song to the day when all can live, love, worship, and work free from bigotry and fear.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.