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The Existential Shuffle

Posted on December 21, 2021


person standing in the road at night with stars

This guest article is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, Assistant to the City Manager for the City of Arvada, CO. Read all of Matt’s other articles at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.


In part, to engage with equity and social justice is to take action, to implement policies, practices, projects, programs, communication, and other tools and tactics. In part, to engage with equity and social justice is to question and critique our own values, perceptions, beliefs, to take a dive into the existential. This post covers the latter.

Here is my first of two position papers for my Hate Groups and Group Violence course, following a prompt where I cover three themes in how local government has been part of the problem. It covers historical wrongs, the difficulty of overcoming denial culture, and finally reflects on the nature of bureaucracy itself, each of these themes more abstract than the last.

What you won’t find in the essay is my own struggles with writing, taking a very hard look at not just our profession, but my own work and wondering what false assumptions am I operating under? Where may I personally be part of the problem? It’s easy for us to get lost within our own heads as we map out, identify, and internalize new understandings.

Critical theory (including critical race theory) I can best summarize as being like the stereotypical toddler who continues to ask, “Why? Why? Why?”, not fully accepting any answer or explanation as a given. For our purposes, it’s really digging into essential questions of local government such as why we pride ourselves on being impersonal and relying on our current processes? Do our citizen outreach and engagement outlets lead to real change, and if so who does that change really serve? What were the past decisions that led to our communities’ strengths and weaknesses today? How does our own work contribute both to innovation and to the status quo?

When we really, genuinely take a hard look into those questions and more, a lot of what we find isn’t going to be to our liking. We know that history is full of terrible injustices, our own histories in local government are no exception. We know there are systemic inequalities that continue despite many people’s good intentions and hard work. Some of those systemic issues fall on or near our own desks. It’s valid to have a sense of unease. It’s not unreasonable to feel outrage and disbelief to recognize that some of our most established institutional norms have some of the weakest, most problematic foundations.

These are the sort of issues that a single program or policy can’t change. It takes a deeper reflection, a willingness to partake in the existential shuffle and come out on the other end with more creative, more fundamental solutions. The catalysts to bring out the existential are numerous. I’m taking graduate courses as one method. There are books, there’s collaborating with others, there’s meditation, there are many effective ways to spark our imagination.

Time

The deeper questions take time, an important resource many of us have very little to spare or take for granted. There is no substitute for carving out time in the week, consistently and often, to work through the more existential, foundational questions. We don’t change overnight. Flashes of genius come to us only after we put in the time to get there.

I write this during the “Great Resignation”, a time when there are fewer reasons that if we don’t have the time to get creative, to get strategic, to step away from our keyboards, and investigate more root-level aspects of our work and organizations… we can find a job that does give us the opportunity.

Prioritize the time, create the time, value the time to get existential.

Control

We have to let go. Make no mistake we very have a large control over our own perspectives, our beliefs, to paint the world around us with our personal truths. As professionals in a position of authority whether large or small, we also have the means to influence others with our personal values whether we’re aware or not. At the very least we decide how to implement rules and policies in our jurisdictions, and often we help shape them as well.

To dive into existential matters is to loosen our grip, is to see what happens when we let go of our control, of the familiar. It is to allow the world to judge us freely and without reprisal, to find purpose in humility. It is to allow other narratives, other goals, other people to take the reigns, even and especially when we don’t have to.

To get to the heart of matters, we have to prepare ourselves to open up our own hearts wide and vulnerable.

Silence

Just as we have to let go of some of our own control, so too do we need to quiet down the noise around us, of the ways we’re pushed and pulled every day. We’re told every day what to buy (we call it marketing), we’re told what world happenings matter and not (we call it the news), and we’re told how to connect with others (we call it social media). One visual doesn’t change us. Thousands upon thousands of images and messages over years is another story.

Have moments of silence. Without blue light, without something urgent (or not urgent) within arm’s reach, without the rush to get another thing done, slow down to a stop. We cannot hope to work through the difficult questions in a deeper, more profound way if our focus is pulled in several different directions. Just as the toddler asks, “Why? Why? Why?” so too can we tune out the outside excuses until we can get to the answers we’re looking for.

Just as anything it takes practice to find and create silence. We can take it a step at a time.

And then, Act

In part, to engage with equity and social justice is to question and critique our own values, perceptions, beliefs, to take a dive into the existential. In part, to engage with equity and social justice is to take action, to implement policies, practices, projects, programs, communication, and other tools and tactics. We take on the existential, the hard questions and understandings, in order to sharpen and focus the actions that follow.

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