Like much of the world, America is deeply divided over identity, equality, and history. Renewal is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s candid and deeply personal account of how her own odyssey opened the door to an important new understanding of how we as individuals, organizations, and nations can move backward and forward at the same time, facing the past and embracing a new future.Weaving together personal stories and reflections with insights from the latest research in the social sciences, Slaughter recounts a difficult time of self‐examination and growth in the wake of a crisis that changed the way she lives, leads, and learns.
Q&A with Anne-Marie Slaughter
What do you mean by “renewal”? Many people in this country are holding hard to tradition and custom and deploring the changes they see around them; lots of others want to rip out the past and start afresh. Doesn’t renewal dissatisfy everyone?
AMS: Renewal is a word and a process that faces backward and forward at the same time. Renewal; renewal. I believe deeply that that dual movement is essential for personal, organizational, and national growth. We must look behind us, at our pasts, and face where and who we have been and what we have done as honestly and unflinchingly as we possibly can. No sugarcoating. As I describe in the book, I have worked hard to do that in my own life, facing my own flaws and patterns of behavior as a catalyst for growth and change. Similarly, if you read books like How the Word Is Passed or Caste or so many others, written by a wonderful diversity of Americans taking a fresh look at our history, you will see that that same process in action: reckoning based on radical honestly.
Reckoning alone, however, is not enough. Growth and change require a vision of something new and the confidence that we can achieve it. That is where the “new” in renewal comes in. We must build on the foundation of what is already there—we cannot escape it, whether personally, organizationally, or nationally. But we must find enough good in what is already there, even as we face the bad, to allow us to believe not just in self-improvement, but in the possibility of transformation. We can make ourselves anew.
Obviously that is a very particular definition of “renewal.” But it is interesting how the idea of renewal pervades faith traditions, whether religious or civic, as well as nature’s cycles. It taps a deep part of our nature. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin wrote of the need both “to celebrate what is constant” and “to be able and willing to change.” “I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths,” he continues, “change in the sense of renewal.”
Finally, as a political concept, renewal sits between restoration and reinvention, reform and revolution. It offers a middle way, one that I believe our country profoundly needs.
The book starts with a very personal story and follows your own transformation as a person and above all as a leader through the chapters—what is the link between your journey and organizational and national renewal?
AMS: I certainly don’t believe that I can embody the nation. But I think that there are important parallels between personal change and social change, in part because organizations and societies cannot change unless the individuals within them change, and in part because we need to develop some of the same muscles and practices for collective transformation that we do for individual transformation. Most important, in my view, is radical honesty in facing who we are, as the foundation for what Adam Grant calls, in his book Think Again, “confident humility” in charting a path forward. Confidence that we can achieve our goals; humility about how. And then building the resilience, risk acceptance, and shared purpose to give ourselves the meaning and motivation we need to proceed on that path.
In telling my own story, I hope to model that kind of radical honesty, to demonstrate that it can be a sign and a source of strength. Brené Brown has of course developed an entire body of work showing how vulnerability can make us far better leaders. I agree, but would go farther, encouraging a personal and professional practice of “running toward the criticism.” I also hope that pulling aside the curtain on my own life will help draw readers in, to invite them to reflect on their own lives and the potential for personal renewal at the same time as they read and think about national renewal.
What does it mean to “run toward the criticism”?
AMS: When I was going through an organizational and personal crisis in 2017, I consulted my friend and mentor David Bradly, Chair of Atlantic Media and then a New America board member. He said: “run toward the criticism.” Even if you are 98 percent right and only 2 percent wrong, he elaborated, acknowledge the fault rather than insist on the virtue. Then use it as the point of departure for a “learning journey.” A journey in which I would deliberately ask for honest critique, even if deep down I wanted to run as fast as possible in the other direction.
David is a man of wit; he used the example of an argument with your spouse, where it is completely clear to you that you are right and they are wrong. If you can find it in yourself to recognize even a tiny bit of merit in their criticism amid the overwhelming superiority of your own position, try to pursue it. In my case, I took his advice and called each one of New America’s board members to ask for their honest feedback on my leadership. I prefaced each call with the point that as a board member myself for various organizations, I know that you can like and even admire a leader and still feel that she is making mistakes or heading in the wrong direction.
I can’t pretend that this is easy, nor would I be honest if I said I always took my own advice in arguments with my husband! But I have come to think of the practice as a mark of strength and confidence, the hallmark of a willingness to learn and grow. Organizations like the U.S. military pride themselves on being “learning organizations,” always trying to identify what went wrong and how they could do better. Angela Duckworth would describe this practice as part of the “growth mindset” we need to flourish. For me, the reminder to run toward the criticism helps inoculate me, imperfectly, against the natural defensiveness we all feel in the face of a challenge to our views or behavior.
The heart of the book is a chapter entitled “Share Power.” You write about your experience sharing power as a leader, but how realistic or practicable is this for other leaders and organizations? And what would it mean nationally?
AMS: I have studied different kinds of power for a long time—as a foreign policy expert (hard power, soft power, smart power), as a network theorist (centralized versus distributed power, “power over” versus “power with”), and as a feminist (gendered notions of power and differences between the ways men and women often wield power). As always, however, actually exercising power yourself as a leader is a very different experience from how you might imagine or theorize about it. In facing my own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, I became increasingly convinced that the best way to grow was to move over. Many leaders hire people who complement their abilities and do the work they are less good at. I have instead created a partnership in which the sum of the two of us, together with a small group of near peers, is better for the organization and for us. That is what I mean by sharing power.
It can be scary. I tell the story in the book about what it felt like to sit around the table at a meeting that I had always led as my new President (I remained CEO) took charge. I worried that I had simply sidelined myself. Over time, however, leading simply became much more enjoyable when I had a partner I could trust, spark ideas off, consult with, and listen to. It also created opportunity for others—my former President, Tyra Mariani, rose more quickly than she would have had she stayed Executive Vice President or COO, and is now President at the Schultz Family Foundation.
Any organization that has a President and CEO can break apart those jobs and create room for another talented person to share the top role (I remain formally the top person, given that a President reports to a CEO, but that really is a formality unless we face a very tough decision where my fellow leaders disagree.) At a time when organizations need to diversify their leadership as well as their “ranks,” when all of us need to figure out how we can actually reflect the America we are today and are rapidly becoming, creating shared positions is an important tool and a faster path to change. Learning to share power as a nation is also the only way the United States can lead effectively in a world in which global, existential problems are more important than great power rivalries, but that’s a subject for another day.
In shifting from personal to national renewal, you talk about how to broaden our understanding of American history through the lens of “rugged interdependence,” which sounds like an oxymoron. What happened to individualism?
AMS: The United States is transforming from a majority white nation, which it has been for its entire history as a state, to a plurality nation, a nation in which no one racial or ethnic group is a majority. To embrace that shift, to realize the full potential of being a nation that reflects and connects the world, Americans must broaden our understanding not just of our future but of our past. “Rugged interdependence” is a frame that allows us to start with rugged individualism, a term first used (as far as I can tell) by Herbert Hoover in a book he published called American Individualism in 1922 and then popularized as President. At least over my lifetime, it has often been a catch-all phrase to describe a supposedly dominant American tradition of liberty, independence, innovation, and toughness.
In fact, it is a very particular tradition, albeit an important one, and only one among many. As I describe, if you read the accounts of the wives who sat alongside their hardy pioneer husbands on the wagon trains heading west in the 19th century, they write far more about interdependence, about depending on all the families that made up the train and on neighbors in the communities where they landed than on individual self-reliance. And if we think about another great geographic movement in the 19th century, the Underground Railroad, and its 20th century parallel The Great Migration, both of which moved from south to north rather than from east to west, the travelers tell stories of solidarity and reliance on strangers whom they had to trust.
“Rugged interdependence,” then, is an invitation to look back at any part of American history and make room for many more voices, to open up to the traits and traditions of many different groups of Americans who have not been able to tell their stories or who have been silenced or ignored when they tried. Once again, my approach is “both/and.” I do not deny the existence or even the value of rugged individualism; I just insist that it is only a part of a much richer and more complex story. Renewal as a nation requires hearing all of our stories, even when they make some of us deeply uncomfortable and ashamed, as the starting point for moving forward and achieving our potential as a far richer nation.
Why do you talk about a “plurality nation” rather than a “majority-minority nation”?
AMS: I have coined the term “plurality nation” because “majority-minority” often has a negative connotation, at least in a country like the United States, in which to be a “discreet and insular minority,” a formulation developed by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan in 1938, is to need special protection against entrenched prejudice that cannot be overcome by shifting political coalitions. “Majority-minority” is far more likely to remind white Americans of what they will lose—e.g. their majority status—than what they stand to gain. For current minorities, the term makes no sense: if no one group is a majority, then why is everyone a minority? Pluralities, at least as I see it, have more power.
Pluralism is also an American tradition to be proud of. I grew up learning to celebrate pluralism, the idea that no one person or group has a lock on the truth. Today I embrace the definition of pluralism offered by The Pluralism Project at Harvard University: “an ethic for living together in a diverse society: not mere tolerance or relativism, but the real encounter of commitments.” Pluralism suggests a rich and textured polity, one with the possibilities of many different coalitions forming around a wide array of issues. Indeed, that vision is at the heart of the political theorist Robert Dahl’s concept of pluralist democracy, or “polyarchy.” Thinking about pluralities also opens the door to plural identities, just as I suggest with the idea of plures et unum. I am a birder, a mother, a mentor, a Democrat, a reader, a professor, a CEO, a wife, a writer, a baker, and on and on. Some people experience their race or ethnicity as an important part of their identity; others do not. It is also possible that over the coming decades Americans will begin to redefine or even reject “white” as a category.
What is the significance of 2026?
AMS: My first job after high school was staffing a Bicentennial booth at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in the summer of 1976. The Bicentennial was a big deal, with a fleet of sixteen tall ships from around the world sailing into New York harbor; special stamps, trains and planes in Bicentennial livery; a state visit from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip; and celebrations and fireworks in towns across the country. Indeed, the commission to plan the Bicentennial was set up a full decade ahead, in 1966.
Since the anniversary actually marks the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson got a lot of airtime, certainly in Charlottesville, home of both Monticello and the University of Virginia, which he founded. Jefferson’s descendants marked their ancestry with particular pride. Indeed, the New York Times ran an article on Jefferson’s kin, including a description of a great-great-great-great-great grandson “who looks like Thomas Jefferson reincarnate. He has the same flaming red hair, the freckles, the strong mouth, solid jaw, and athletic frame.” The article also mentioned “alleg[ations]” through the years that Jefferson also had children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman “who was reportedly Jefferson’s mistress,” but noted that most of Jefferson’s white family rejected the claim.
Imagine that article in 2026, fifty years later. Imagine a picture of all Jefferson’s living descendants, Black and white and every shade in between. Imagine a much larger picture of all the Founders’ descendants, recognizing family as family, without distinction of legitimacy or illegitimacy, marriage to white women or rape of enslaved Black women. Imagine tracing the lines back from those descendants back to their illustrious and flawed ancestors as equal tracks of American history.
2026 will be a very different kind of celebration. We will be on the cusp of the transformation into a plurality nation; by 2027 Americans under 30 will not have a white majority. The confident triumphalism of 1976, even after Vietnam and Watergate, will still be in evidence in some parts of the country. But for most Americans, celebrations and commemorations will be mixed with reckoning, and, I hope, renewal. Renewal of a commitment to our highest ideals with radical honesty about just how far we have often fallen short of them. Renewal based on a plan for long-term reparation of systemic racism and injustice. But also renewal based on a new national narrative grounded in the power of being the world’s most diverse nation and embracing a new and far more critical patriotism.
Why are you optimistic?
AMS: I always answer that question by noting that I started my career as an international lawyer, a profession for which optimism is a prerequisite. The wheels of international law grind very, very slowly; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 as a non-binding Declaration and was not even enshrined into treaties for nearly two decades; we still have probably a century to go before international human rights are truly integrated into enforceable domestic law.
Aside from my personality, however, I am optimistic because of the extraordinary change I have seen over my lifetime as a white woman. I was born in 1958 in Virginia, in what was still the Jim Crow south; I grew up with parents who strongly encouraged me to have a career but in which I knew no women doctors, professors, politicians, judges, bankers, and only one woman lawyer, who felicitously was also named Anne Marie. The world my sons have grown up in was radically different, one in which they take women in positions of authority as natural and expect their women classmates, friends, and colleagues to be just as smart and competent as they are, or more so. The United States has also made enormous racial progress over those fifty years, even if it has been very uneven and has tackled individual racism rather than systemic racism.
I understand that telling our national story in terms of a steady “progress narrative” can conceal more than reveal, which is precisely why I insist on an honest historical reckoning and full inclusion of all Americans as equally American, which creates a far more complex narrative of progress, regress, and stasis. Telling all of our stories as honestly as we can, and absorbing them without trying to deny or prettify, is the first step toward a new generation of change. Yet I deeply believe that it is a deep part of the American system, as flawed as that system is, to allow, indeed encourage, that self-reflection and criticism. It is part of our national DNA to celebrate the ideals that were proclaimed, although not honored, in the Declaration of Independence, and then to take a good hard look at the yawning gap between the ideal and the real. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured this idea more powerfully and profoundly than anyone else in his “I Have a Dream Speech”:
When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice.
I am an optimist because I believe that over the 250 years that I hope are still to come, for the United States and for our planet, the American people will find unity, strength, power, and happiness in cashing that check at last.
About the Author
Anne-Marie Slaughter is CEO of New America and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Her books include Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family and The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Twitter @SlaughterAM
Also of Interest
Renewal is also available as an audiobook, narrated by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Listen to the introduction.