In 1804 Thomas Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition west for the discovery of a northwest water passage to the Pacific Ocean. For a mere $2,500 (about $51,000 today), Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corp of Discovery on a journey that took much longer than anticipated, faced challenges they could never have imagined, met friend and foe, and ultimately failed at discovering a water route.
It’s important to note that they failed. But failing at their stated goal led them to achieve more than anyone could have expected—achievements in navigation, geography, botany, etc. These men were working in uncharted territory. Once they reached the Rocky Mountains they had no way of communicating back to Jefferson, but he never lost faith (at least not to the public) that the men were alive and were succeeding. His unfaltering belief in their ability gave the Corp the drive to move forward, and the leadership of Lewis and Clark—leadership defined by democracy—created loyal men interested in advancing the knowledge of their country.
This concise history lesson can be applied today as we work to reduce poverty. What strikes me as similar to the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative is that there were huge obstacles encountered along the way, obstacles that made the journey last much longer than expected. As RMAPI begins the action phase of the implementation, I hope we can embrace Jefferson’s unwavering faith in his men, and his extreme patience in the process.
I hope that those of us working in the spirit of the Corp can find the strength to keep going from our leadership. Clark and Lewis I’m sure were discouraged along the way. But they didn’t let those days dominate because they knew the weight on their shoulders. They had a responsibility to Jefferson, who believed in them, and to their men, who trusted them with their lives.
Another idea that strikes me is that they didn’t know what they would face when they passed the last known point on their map. They were courageous, they were a little crazy, and they kept going. The discoveries they made changed the course of the country. Never mind they didn’t find the northwest passage; not because they didn’t try but because it didn’t exist. The country is richer for the knowledge they brought back than if they discovered an easy route to the west coast.
We will be richer for the unexpected knowledge we’ll gain along the RMAPI journey. We will fail at some of our written goals, but those failures will make our future discoveries that much more important. I may be using some literary license, and perhaps some arrogance comparing our efforts to the Corp of Discovery, but let’s think big and let’s keep the stakes high.