The following is a lightly edited version of incoming GRA President Sarah Wetmore’s introductory remarks at the GRA Annual Meeting on August 3, 2020.
Many thanks to you all and for those of you who have not yet met me, I have the true privilege of being Vice President and Research Director of the over 125-year-old Civic Federation in Chicago. It is an inspiration to be part of an unbroken chain of good government research going back over such a long time and connecting me with such storied Chicagoans as philanthropist Bertha Palmer and activist and reformer Jane Addams.
When I agreed to take on the role of Vice President and eventually President of GRA two years ago, I did not of course expect it to be by Zoom in the middle of a pandemic and economic free-fall. I expected to be in Washington, DC with all of you and with the opportunity to have all of those side conversations that make the GRA conference such a delight and so incredibly helpful to my own work at the Civic Federation. I expected to be able to introduce myself to all of you in person.
But if you think about it, these kinds of times—crisis times, hard times—are when we are most needed and shine the brightest as government researchers. Our organizations are usually not founded when the budgets are balanced, rainy day funds are full and government officials are transparent and forthright. No, our organizations were established to meet some kind of crying need: for the Civic Federation, it was the Panic of 1893 and the subsequent depression that left residents of Chicago so destitute they slept on the floors in City Hall. And that animated civic leaders to do more to make government efficient and effective, resulting in the founding of the Civic Federation.
Our organizations have over their collective hundreds of years of existence worked and researched and written and made a difference through good times and bad. And the coronavirus pandemic has clearly galvanized the organizations of the GRA like never before. There has been a tsunami of fantastic information, explainers, new research and policies and I strongly recommend that you all visit the GRA webpage dedicated to collecting our coronavirus research to get an inkling of how prolific we’ve all been. I can guarantee it will inspire you as much as it has inspired me. And if your organization does not yet have your work posted there, please email me a link at firstname.lastname@example.org to the place on your own website where you have collected your coronavirus research and I will make sure it is posted as soon as possible.
I am clear-eyed about how difficult the next two years are going to be personally, organizationally and financially for all of us. As a volunteer organization, no one would blame us if we stepped back from the GRA a bit to focus on our own work. However, a former Mayor of Chicago once said (and I know you’re all thinking “vote early and often,” but that’s not the Mayor I was thinking of). A different Mayor of Chicago once said we shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste.
This cataclysm is like no crisis we have ever seen of course and I’m not entirely certain you can take advantage of a cataclysm. However, I think we should try. As our outgoing GRA President Mebane Rash always says, “you are the meaning makers and wayfinders” and governments across the country need our counsel and nonpartisan analysis more than ever. And we need each other more than ever. We need to be each other’s wayfinders as well. We need the inspiration of each other’s work and ideas and we need to get the best ideas and policies out there and working.
So I say, let’s lean into the GRA this year. I can’t shake your hands or even give you an elbow bump, but I hope the GRA will be a convener for us over the entire year to share not just research ideas and findings, but how we keep our organizations going financially, operationally. I don’t know where we’ll be a year from now. But I will judge this coming year a success if we can keep this conversation going for the good of our communities. Thank you.