Social Justice -> Local Government: FAQ Part One

Posted on June 14, 2023

A series of three-dimensional black question marks lie against a black background, with two of the question marks glowing orange from within.

This guest article is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, Colorado local government and DEI professional. Read all of Matt’s other articles at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.

As I wind this series down, I wanted to answer ten of the more common and interesting questions I’ve received both with this series and with my DEI work in general. This first part covers five of these questions.

What made you interested in social justice…?

The short answer is, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

The longer answer is I had the privilege of living abroad when I was little, specifically in Indonesia as my dad worked there as an engineer for a few years. I think things snowballed from there as I’d had wonderful memories in the predominately Muslim country which stood in stark contrast to the prejudice I saw against Islam after 9-11. It led to my BA in International Relations, to the U.S. Peace Corps, to continuing public service in local government and incorporating more and more DEI into it, etc.

Like anything else, as we learn more it’s hard to simply switch it off. Whether a planner who can see the zoning decisions as they drive past a commercial center, to a law enforcement professional who can spot the subtle signs of where there’s likely crime, the same is for matters of social justice and equity. As I’ve continued to learn and practice the work, it becomes easier to see, harder to unsee, and may as well put it to good use as part of my career.

…as a white male?

There’s a bit of a push and pull as I fall under virtually every privileged category while I engage with matters of equity and inclusion. Part of the work is understanding our own identity, our perspective, our biases, etc. and I need to regularly reflect on my own demographics to do this work right. On the other hand, getting more praise more quickly for being a guy who’ll talk about feminism, for a white person who’ll state the need for racial equity work is a real thing, and is a problem. It’s trying to own up to my privilege, while not taking up more space than I’ve earned.

The fact that I stand out for being a white cisgender male doing the work is less a sign of my achievements, and more a sign of how low the bar’s been set. Being an ally is great, and being an ally is no more praiseworthy than people advocating and fighting for rights, dignity, and a voice for their own demographics.

How do we get the people who really need to hear this to listen?
As I write this it’s been three years since the murder of George Floyd served as the final straw before mass nationwide protests, public outcry, and the current wave of trainings, new positions, and changing policies that continues to this day. It’s been near three years, and by this point if there are people who still just “don’t get what it’s all about”, then it is by choice. It is willful ignorance. People can be too busy for three months. Three years is trying to wait it out, and hope others take care of it or that it falls out of fashion.

I would challenge anyone on this question to ask why we think the people who need to be in the training, the conference, the listening session are the ones who are not there? We set ourselves up for failure when we give power over to those who aren’t attending, holding our breath, and hoping this year they’ll finally come around. We are better served by relying on the people who are showing up, starting with ourselves. If we do nothing, then we are using others less informed than us as a shield. We are using them to pretend as if they are the reason nothing is moving forward when another explanation is that those of us more informed are standing still. I’d encourage us to pivot our focus to what we can accomplish now, with the people who are already there first.

I’m afraid that I might get something wrong, or even make things worse…

Yes, you will get something wrong. You may make something worse temporarily before it gets better.

I have gotten things wrong with DEI work. I have been correctly criticized for my work to date. From not moving the needle enough at times, and for pushing too hard and setting efforts back in other moments, I’ve gotten it wrong. I have gotten tunnel-visioned and become too lost in the big picture. I have also at times lost sight of the larger picture in favor of small details. Sometimes I’ve been too focused in my own work and not supported others like I should have. I have learned things that make me wish I could go back and redo how I approached a project, training, or strategy.

And from each of those errors I learn and do better. The journey is bumpy, and we can use the bumps to improve our skills or scare us away from trying again. I cannot genuinely offer an easy button on this one. Like anything else, we usually don’t get it right the first time. We can get over this fear by accepting its inevitability.

My best advice is start small, learn as we go along, and be ready to accept and resolve mistakes when they happen. Just like any professional endeavor, we should be mindful and aware of our level of expertise, take on tasks that are appropriate for our skill level, and build said expertise and skill over time. In order to grow, we have to start sometime, somewhere, somehow.

I don’t want to get into trouble, or hurt my relationships…

This is a tough one, and I empathize. DEI, social justice, and more are heavily politicized, and many people have concluded that the work is at best misguided if not inappropriate and morally reprehensible. Even people open to the work in theory may have thought it was going to “correct those other people who’re more misguided”, and not be ready to do the hard reflection and change themselves.

Know that inaction is also a choice, and that we will be judged for that as well.

I would not ask anyone to compromise their job or career. I will point out that it is up to us to decide what we want our job and career to be. If we feel that we cannot do what we think is right, to genuinely express our concerns, then what does that tell us about our current situation? If this is the case, what do we want to do about it?


Stay tuned for Part Two of the FAQ!

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