Social Justice -> Local Government: Not-A-Conclusion

Posted on July 10, 2023

A close-up of a person's legs and hiking boots as they walk through desert sand in Saudi Arabia. In the background is the rising sun.

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.

In January 2020 I started the Social Justice -> Local Government series with ELGL, and this “not-a-conclusion” marks the 32nd post in about three-and-a-half years. This is intended to be the last post of the series because I did what I set out to do. I wanted to summarize the best lessons I picked up in a Masters in the Humanities with a Social Justice track, dedicating all my research and projects to have a local government focus, and I’ve done just that. I could keep going as is, expand the series to additional books I’ve read, work I’ve done, but I feel that it’s better to end this series on a strong note and can always develop something new as I continue forward.

I name this post as not-a-conclusion because social justice is far from being integrated into our institutions and is likely generational work, because this is certainly not my last collaboration with ELGL, and because my own journey into promoting equity in local government is just beginning.

The Tipping Point

One question I did not include in the FAQ is when people have asked me if I think we’ve reached a “tipping point”? With so many written commitments to anti-racism, hiring of DEI professionals, more trainings, more recognition and celebration of diverse backgrounds, and so forth have we climbed over the most difficult barriers and momentum is carrying us the rest of the way? My answer is no. I do not think we’ve reached a tipping point, nor do I believe such a tipping point exists. 

I do not mean to be a buzzkill. I mean to remind ourselves that the rights already won have all been grueling and hard fought every step of the way, and that every right won can be lost again. I mean to remind ourselves what the true nature of social justice, of diversity, equity, and inclusion is: 

Everything we do impacts people differently whether a policy, capital project, program, or even a vision/mission/value statement. Everything we do has an equity component to it whether we choose to be aware of it or not, whether we choose to make it part of our decision-making process or not. There is no tipping point when it comes to serving all our communities in ways that recognize, value, and take positive action for our differences. It is our work past, present, and future.

The Opposition

It was in Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” that I came across an idea that truly captures the opposition to social justice. It is not so much that opponents weigh the pros and cons of all the talking points and evidence to why and how we should have a more equitable society, and then determine it’s not a priority. It is that they deny the existence or need of social justice altogether. 

A metaphor to consider is it’s like trying to win a game of chess when the other person won’t make a move, or their move is to flip the table over. The denial comes in many forms…

  • Opponents deny the work by saying we’re past the problems, accepting the status quo as good enough or as good as it can be.
  • Opponents deny the work by believing there must always be rigid hierarchies with those on top and those on bottom. Through this lens, feminism must be putting women above men, BLM must be putting black Americans above white. Fairness to them is a fairytale.
  • Opponents deny the work by making up convenient rules like thinking the “social” is distinct from government work, not accepting or understanding that we already impose social opportunities and restrictions. In this way, they deny responsibility.
  • Opponents deny the work by believing some people don’t deserve moral consideration. From low-income neighborhoods, to those in the minority, to those who live differently in any number of ways, no few people believe that others need to play by the rules and accept their lower station in life. 
  • Opponents deny the work with self-doubt and hopelessness. They still see our systems and structures like the Wizard of Oz… an all-powerful being beyond us instead of what it really is: just a person behind the curtain. We can all work to step behind the curtain and drop the illusion.

Of all the ways to deny, it is the last that I’m most interested in and focused on. It is the one I believe holds the most promise for change. We only need to believe in ourselves and believe in the people around us.  

What Comes Next?

My next project will be working with the Colorado City and County Management Association in turning my Equity Guidebook into a video series, expanding the lessons within into a new medium and spreading the themes and understanding in the book to more people. I’m also continuing to read about, train in, and directly engage in the work to grow and improve. 

What comes next is up to you. There are many others who are writing about social justice in posts for ELGL, who are talking about DEI in podcasts for ELGL, there are people in your community and organization who are interested if not advocating for it. It is up to you if you choose to listen and learn, pivot and act, struggle and trailblaze… or not. 

That’s both the wonderful and frightening thing of it all. What comes next hasn’t been decided yet. We decide.

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