Idealism has a lot of power

Following her journey as an Irish immigrant to becoming the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration, Samantha Power’s memoir “The Education of an Idealist” astonished me with its messages of empathy, conviction, honesty and, of course, idealism.

To be honest, I had never heard of Power until I stumbled across her memoir while looking for another biography to read. Since it always feels as though our governments and our politicians flounder to address even the most straightforward problems, I’ve never been that inclined to read into politics or the lives of politicians. But I was pleasantly surprised after reading her memoir. There are four main aspects of her story I teased out that not only make it a good read but also offer a well-rounded framework for developing our political and personal perspectives around a range of topics.

First, the honesty that underpins the entire narrative is as refreshing as it is insightful, into her worldview and into the broader global community. Initially, Power tells of the personal struggles she underwent as her parents’ marriage imploded: her father sank deeper into his alcoholism and her mother, with her new partner, took both her and her brother to the U.S. to start a new life. She admits that her interest in international relations and foreign relations was sparked rather accidentally by seeing footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing that had been beamed into the news station where she’d been working during college as a sports reporter. Witnessing this horrific incident seemed to awaken the sense of empathy that would compel her throughout her career.

Wanting to help, Power worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but she felt limited in that capacity. So, she decided to travel to the former Yugoslavia and become a war correspondent. As much as she and other journalists reported on the conflicts there, people in positions to act couldn’t or wouldn’t move fast enough to positively change policies. She had the idea to attend law school to learn about the legality around creating, changing and instituting public and foreign policy. This led her to become a professor at Harvard Kennedy School, during which time she wrote “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” This book attracted the attention of then-Senator Barack Obama, who invited her to work with him and eventually his presidential campaign.

Advising Obama on issues related to the treatment of human rights abroad, she realized the various ways in which, on a small scale, one can help champion human rights, and on a larger scale, one country can stand up for smaller countries to help prevent all kinds of disasters and atrocities. In one instance, Power realized a solution born out of conviction, empathy and idealism. As UN ambassador, she recognized the need for the international community to pull together to confront the Ebola crisis as it was threatening to become a pandemic. By relieving the suffering of the people where Ebola had broken out, the U.S. and other countries could prevent a global health crisis and help regions that couldn’t handle such a problem on their own.

Despite some of the heavy material, I felt after reading Power’s memoir that we’re not as powerless to change the world for the better as we may think we are.