Brittany Bennett is a commercial loan officer at Self-Help, a community development financial institution based in Durham, NC. She’s deeply passionate about social justice; loves delicious food, especially with good conversation; and constantly looks for a chance to show off pictures of her adorable nephew. Find her on Twitter at @BBenn4.
I have a master’s degree in public administration, an area of study that emphasizes accountability to future government and nonprofit leaders. The curriculum for soon-to-be public servants is focused on avoiding fraud, waste, and abuse, but one topic that was noticeably underdeveloped was the historical context in which we would be working in communities; nuanced discussion of policies that had been implemented by public servants that created disproportionately negative effects on communities of color and that led to much of the current distrust of government in those same communities.
I’ve been grappling with this perceived lack of understanding that many people working in any type of public service or social justice work have of this context and that we are rarely directly accountable to the people and communities we intend to serve. Coupling these two missing pieces means our organizations are poised to perpetuate legacies of harm because they are void of the type of empathy and accountability that will allow us to create policies that ultimately improve outcomes.
We have elected officials and appointed boards to represent the people’s interests, but the most vulnerable people are not usually at the table or listened to in earnest even if given a seat. I recognize the need for efficiency and being good stewards of financial resources, etc., but isn’t it wasteful and highly inefficient to continue to provide services that aren’t putting a dent in the problem and that are actually harmful to the people and communities we claim to want to help? Why do we settle for addressing a problem rather than eradicating it?
A simple answer is that these problems are hugely complicated, expensive to solve, and just plain hard. So we continue on with our programs and use a few data points to show that we’ve moved the needle in some small way. We don’t have to achieve a solution; we just have to work towards one. We sleep well at night because we spend our lives in service to others and we continue to get funding for this work for years and years.
Here’s an example: during a Saturday volunteer shift at the local food bank, the staff person celebrated that they’d increased the number of people served and the amount of food given every year for the past several years. I asked about the cause of the increase and why she was proud of those numbers… I just wanted some assurance that she at least recognized that an increase isn’t a good thing because if we are truly working towards ending hunger, we’d be terribly disappointed that the numbers of people needing services is increasing because that means we’re not succeeding at keeping people from needing the food donations in the first place. Of course we need short term solutions, but we shouldn’t allow them to become the status quo. They should just be in place while we actively pursue real change.
A few months ago, I heard someone say, “Where there’s accountability, there’s power.” This stuck with me, especially in light of the most recent officer-involved shooting deaths of unarmed black men. Many argue that people continue to die at the hands of police because there isn’t real accountability to the people. So wonder what happens when we think radically about disrupting the status quo and redistributing power to all the people and communities we’re trying to help?
Let’s just imagine something different for a second.
- What if every funding source required your new program or project to be designed, approved, and monitored by the people who will be impacted by or use it?
- What if your organization couldn’t operate without true accountability to the populations you’re committed to serve, meaning they have the power to fire you or shut you down if you continuously fall short on fulfilling your commitment to them?
- What if we stop speaking for people and groups that we aren’t a part of and, instead, make room for them to speak for themselves?
- What if we actually listen when they have the space to speak and then work together to develop solutions?
- What if we start measuring our progress on eradicating poverty, closing the achievement gap, or any other big social problem from a systems level, rather than from an individual level? What does that even look like? (Remember, what gets measured gets done).
- What if we actually worked ourselves out of jobs by solving the problems?
We’ve been conditioned to not think critically about our existing systems of power, which allows oppression and harm to be invisible and unquestioned. There are whole ecosystems of service providers for every problem we’re working to end and people who profit off of the persistence of these issues. I want to think critically and challenge the status quo. Even if it’s working for you, your family, or community, who is it not working for? Why is that? What needs to change so that our systems work equally and equitably for everyone?
I believe in the good intentions of public servants, but intentions are not outcomes. If we’re committed to helping communities thrive, it’s our job to figure out the answers to these questions.