Social Justice -> Local Government: FAQ Part Two

Posted on June 21, 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.

And here’s Part Two of our FAQ covering ten of the most common questions I’ve been asked as part of the Social Justice -> Local Government series and with working on diversity, equity, and inclusion in general. If you missed Part One, you can find it here.

It feels like social justice is so big, is too much to take on…

It is. We’re contending with issues that have persisted for hundreds of years, are ingrained at every level of our society. If any of us feels like it’s just too big to solve, then that means we’re starting to understand what this is all about.

It is not up to us each as individuals to solve all the problems, for all the people, for all time. It is up to us to figure out what our own scope of influence is and do our best within that framework. The vast majority of us do not intend to lead a national movement, nor do the vast majority of us need to. Instead, we can use our technical skills, positions of authority, and professional networks to make a real impact that’s within reach. I’ve found it is usually less than we want, and it is also more than we think it is.

My best answer to reconcile with the hard truth that there’s simply too much to take on is to have faith in others, to believe in people. When we perceive the challenge in its entirety with only our individual self looking up at it, we imagine a scenario in which we are alone. When we have faith in others and see them helping, see them as current or potential allies, then we understand our role is to do as much as we can and make room for those around us to do the same.

How do we make this more comfortable for people, ensure that it’s not too difficult?

I have learned that discomfort is like a compass, and that as I grow more uncomfortable, it means I’m walking in the right direction. Social justice should be uncomfortable, we should feel some pressure when asking if we’re serving our communities fairly and if some people are falling through the cracks. If we find out that we’ve neglected people who could really use our services, we should be ill-at-ease and then use that feeling to help propel change. Comfort is not a prerequisite of change, it is a barrier to it.

That being said, I’ve also for now come to the conclusion that embracing discomfort is a more advanced step along the journey, is not where most people begin. The best way I have found to let people be more at ease is to listen and learn from them first. Find out their interests, their work, their hurdles, their specific interests in DEI. Allow their voices to let us tweak our approach, so we engage with them more personally, and model what it’s like to change how we do things in respect to the needs of different audiences.

We choose our battles. The two areas that I’ve personally tried to push the boundaries is to suggest that we can each make a bigger difference, have greater influence than we think (this makes people uncomfortable when they hear it), and question how key organizational decisions are made, what are the rules that are both spoken and unspoken (from experience this makes people even more uncomfortable). It is to each of us to determine what, when, and how we push the envelope, knowing that said envelope needs a push.

Matt, you seem so reasonable, I wish others would be like you…

Let’s take a pause. This is a compliment I’ve received a number of times that I can’t accept, at least not without some caveats. Yes, my way of talking about matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion works for some people very well. It does not diminish the approach others take whether it’s more passionate, more personal, more direct, more fierce, etc.

The truth is we’re better off learning about these topics from multiple people, with different styles, focuses, and strengths. I encourage everyone not only to follow the person whose approach resonates with us. Look up people whose style doesn’t mesh with our own and make the effort to still listen and learn, to embrace new ideas and not get caught up whether it was packaged perfectly just for us. If we demand perfection from those trying to speak about diversity, equity, and inclusion and resist whenever there’s a slight misstep real or perceived…we set them up for failure. They deserve better from us.

This is great practice for working better with residents, stakeholders, etc. whose values and perspectives don’t match ours. It is great practice for changing our mindset. If we can accept someone’s style, someone’s tone that we wouldn’t have in the past, we open up the door for greater, more impactful learning.

Where’s the data?

Data is a tool. Intent is the hand. Good data can serve us well, can identify where the biggest problems are, where we can do the most good, etc. Unfortunately, most of us do not have robust social justice data about our specific work and community right at our fingertips. It is something several communities and organizations are looking to remedy.

What’s important to remember is that we have other tools at our disposal in the meantime to work with, and we don’t need to wait for the perfect dataset to start. Also know that sometimes the people asking for data are going to find flaws with it no matter what. “You didn’t ask everyone in the community in the survey” “what about this question you could’ve asked instead” “well, this doesn’t match what my X years of experience tells me”. The request to gather more data can be a trap, a way to derail efforts for months all to have said data dismissed once it’s gathered.

Besides, there’s already plenty of macro data out there. We have the history, we have numbers for the ongoing disparities in the country, the facts are there. “But that’s the country as a whole, OUR COMMUNITY is the exception” is no different than the excuses above, and further proof that data alone won’t move us forward. Even if we get the data, there still needs to be the underlying intent to commit to the work. Therefore, data should answer the question HOW we best engage with DEI not IF we should engage with it.

What recommendations do you have to learn more?

It really depends on the person and their specific situation. I’d start with asking ourselves what barriers are we facing that prevent us from engaging in equity work, and learn how to overcome those. For many of us, a barrier is we feel we don’t know how to be an ally, or enough about the cultural nuances of a specific demographic group, or how equity intersects with our profession, etc. It’s different for each of us.

Although there’s certain books, articles, and videos that have stood out to me, I don’t believe there’s any single resource on social justice that is necessary for us to start. As I’ve been catching up on many of the more prominent works, many come to the same conclusion and later works reference older ones and build off of them. For that reason I usually don’t provide too many recommendations unless someone has specific goals or interests, in which case we can narrow it down.

This is one place I feel like we can develop the initiative, the ownership to further social justice in our work. Rather than wait for someone else to guide us by placing a book on our desk, we can do the research and find a couple resources that match our interests and needs. In fact, I recommend typing into the search engine “social justice for planners”, or “diversity for police”, or “ways to be an ally”, or whatever you think captures what you’re eager to learn. I recommend you do it now while it’s top of mind.


Thanks everyone who’ve been following along. Next post will be the conclusion to the series.

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