When I started conceptualizing Social Justice -> Local Government last year, I came up with a basic premise which I spoke of in my introductory post this January. “In this series I will take the most critical, interesting, and relevant lessons I learn in my coursework and research [on social justice topics such as feminism and race theory] and apply them to a local government context.” Externally, taking these graduate courses helps substantiate my qualifications to discuss these issues. Internally, the classes give me the confidence to offer my insights, to quiet the voices of self-doubt.
This concept does not work right now. Right now I need to pivot. To say, “Well, I’d love to speak about the struggles of black Americans, but I have to wait for my class in September,” is filled with more privileges than there are words in the sentence. From the lack of urgency, to the privilege of higher education, to valuing academia over current events, to holding myself back with rules I created for myself and am very much able to change, it’s unacceptable for me not to pivot.
However, I don’t yet have the answers that I want to provide in how we as local government professionals can make systemic changes to better understand, represent, and serve our black citizens. I have no genie’s lamp to make my desire to share that knowledge a reality. It is still something I need to work towards, to earn. So once more I need to pivot, to find a way to do some good in this moment that takes a different approach.
What I feel I can offer right now is some insights into the frame of thinking that helped start Social Justice -> Local Government that might be replicable for others. In particular, it may be replicable for those of us in a position of privilege.
It is about pivoting.
Pivot to Discomfort
Those of us in a privileged position have the choice to be comfortable. We can tune out the news, avoid the protests, go about our day and choose comfort during these times.
We can instead pivot to discomfort.
We treat being uncomfortable as a negative thing, as a pain to be avoided. I’m learning to embrace discomfort, find beauty and strength in restlessness. When our discomfort grows there is a good chance it means we’re on the right track and should lean in more.
The problems that black Americans face are deeply uncomfortable. We have to find a level of discomfort to be a part of the solution.
Pivot to being Wrong
There is also this sense for those of us in privilege that we need to be right, correct, that being told we are wrong is an attack on our identity. If so, perhaps our identity needs to be attacked.
We can pivot towards accepting when we’re wrong.
We can feel sad, or frustrated, or angered, or embarrassed when our strongest (or even not strongest) convictions are challenged, or we can drink it up, be thirsty for criticism. We can seek ways to reaffirm ourselves or search for the means to evolve and grow. I’m learning to laugh at myself for small mistakes and feel humility for larger faults. We don’t have to hold onto pride in the face of better ideas.
It’s only to be expected that those of us who aren’t black will not have the whole picture, to not understand the scale, the scope, the depth, the nuances of the struggles they face, and will need to be ready to accept how we’re wrong.
Pivot out of the Spotlight
Those of us who are privileged can more easily be the protagonists, to take the lead, make the decisions in both our work and personal lives. We are encouraged and rewarded for taking this initiative.
We can step back and let others take the lead.
For any of us used to a level of power and flexibility in our work it can be uncomfortable (see above) to let someone else take the spotlight, to take the wheel and drive. I’m learning to enjoy a more secondary role and be a part of others’ success. There is a liberating quality to it, we can see what others can accomplish, what new and refreshing directions they can take programs, projects, initiatives, ideas.
For those of us who are not black, we can help their voices, their stories, their hopes and aspirations through supporting roles that keep them at the reigns of the conversation and the solutions. “How can I help?” goes a long, long way.
And Pivot to the Long Game
There will be gains made for black Americans during this window of passion, awareness, and questioning. Those gains will not be enough once the protests, the death of George Floyd and other black Americans from Fred Hampton to Breonna Taylor no longer dominate national and global attention.
This series will not stop anytime soon, and I urge anyone taking action today to be prepared to take action weeks, months, years down the road. Those of us who are privileged have the choice to feel doing good today absolves us from having to make the effort tomorrow. We can learn to make action a habit, a perspective, something enduring and sustainable.
This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado.
Read all of Matt’s other blogs at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.