Stop Saying We’re Winning, We’re Not

Before we start, if you’re not paying attention to the battle for the internet, you should. The FCC has proposed changes that will eliminate net neutrality. The short version is ending net neutrality will create more of a digital divide by creating more of a market based system where you pay for what you need, sounds good but if you are poor or a small business it is hard to compete with people with faster internet. If you care about ending racism, you should care about freedom of information and who has access to it. Rise up and get mad about Net Neutrality, link to the FCC comment page, enter code 17-108.

I’m torn between writing this post and writing something about being thankful because it is Thanksgiving weekend. Alas, this is Fakequity and we rarely do what is expected.

Last week I attended a policy-wonk conference. It was interesting and a great way to learn more about federal tax policy, meet other colleagues, and learn some new things. I learned a lot of new acronyms like EITC (earning income tax credit) and terms like Con Con (look it up) that make little sense to non-wonks. The wonk-factor was high at this event in a good way.

Several people mentioned how different this conference felt than the year before. The 2016 conference happened right after the presidential election that elected Trump. It sounded like a collective mourning and shrouds of darkness hung over the event. This year we didn’t kid ourselves that things were rosy, but the light was peeking through despite being in windowless hotel conference rooms. There was ‘fight’ in the room, I was waiting for someone to play Rachel Patton’s Fight Song as an anthem.

During one of the plenary panels, several speakers said: “We’re winning…” The multiracial panel talked about how we stopped the Republican’s attempt to squash the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Others talked about success at multiracial organizing and bringing white rural people along. It was interesting and inspiring and an important shot of go-go juice, but a third of the way through the talk I wrote myself a note “Are we really winning?”

I may be standing alone in the corner in the policy-wonk land, but I don’t think communities of color and the progressive movement are really winning right now. We may feel like we’re winning but we’re just slowing down bad stuff from happening. Our causes are in defensive mode and we’re responding. We’re doing a great job at slowing down crap from happening, but I hesitate to call this winning.

Holding the Line

Last year at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center conference I dropped into a panel discussion with Dr. Ben Danielson. Dr. Danielson is a local legend for his work at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic. While on the panel his co-panelist talked about the defensive policy moves we would have to take after the Trump was elected. The panelist talked about steps to save Apple Health for Kids (state medical insurance) and rural versus urban politics. These were important points, but nothing really stood out until Dr. Danielson answered a question and said something along the lines of “I’m worried we’ll hold the line and we won’t make progress.” This honest sentiment resonated.


Artwork from the National Portrait Gallery Struggle for Justice exhibit. Photo by Erin Okuno

Holding the line and fighting to keep what we have is important, but does this come at the expensive of working for more? People and communities of color are already behind. It is important to protect the gains we’ve made, but if we’re not pushing for more we risk staying behind. We need to be honest about where we are and the gains we’ve made. We also need to believe we are entitled to more. By declaring we’re winning we’re putting blinders on to the fact we are wasting a lot of energy fighting for things we already fought for. If we weren’t forced to save healthcare, we could use that energy to work for some greater achievement.

Be Bolder

A few months ago, I was working with the Chinese immigrant community and my colleague and friend Jondou asked the parents a simple question “What are your dreams for your children?” People who work with Asian immigrants are probably chuckling a bit, in the Asian community we don’t talk about dreams. We may talk about aspirations, but not in the terms of dreams. One of the participants answered this question thoughtfully by saying “I don’t even know my own dreams.”

It is hard to dream when you have been told to stay inline and to be grateful for what you have. The message mainstream America tells people of color is “You too can achieve this dream if you work hard.” But what mainstream America doesn’t explain is how racism works. The American dream is also just that, a monolithic American dream, don’t dare to want something different than that dream or to ask for more, or to question if the resources and tools are there to achieve the dream.

Jondou shared with the group “I think one of the ways that…racial inequality happens is when people can’t even dream anymore. We’re so busy looking for a translator that we can’t think our own thoughts.” Many of the parents we worked with said their identities as Chinese people weren’t recognized by the school system. They didn’t have aspirational dreams to share because they were caught up in asking the school system to provide little things many of us take for granted. They were asking for basics like interpreters, to making sure their children weren’t misidentified as needing special education services when really the child didn’t understand English, and to be seen by the school system. I hear similar stories out of other communities of color. It is hard to dream when you’re worried about physical safety – is it safe to walk home from a neighbor’s house past 10.00 p.m., is it safe for your African American teen to walk your sweet pit bull at night, do you dare to dream about college for your child when your kid is constantly told they need to behave differently to stay in class.

This is how systems tell us to stay in our place and we call little things wins – Yay we got an interpreter today, never mind the bigger dream of changing the system so we have bilingual teachers and education for all. We are too busy fighting for things that should be provided. When we speak up to demand what we should be entitled to it we’re told we’re being too forward, too audacious, too outlandish. The subtle message is we should be more reasonable, shut up and be grateful for the pittance of wins. So yes, we are winning, but we’re not winning fast enough to stay caught up.


My resolution in 2017 is to practice more gratitude. The challenge for me is to remember gratitude doesn’t equate with settling. As an example: I’m grateful we saved health care, I’m still annoyed we had to fight that fight.

Join me in celebrating the wins but continuing to call out fakequity. I will share what I am thankful for as it relates to winning and holding the line:

  • I am thankful for the policy wonks who wonk-out and provide the data needed to prove we’re winning and how we’re not winning. At another time I’ll blog about how you need to wonk-out with activist to breakdown silos.
  • I’m thankful for people like Dr. Ben Danielson who speak truth-to-power and brave being the lone person on the panel saying nope, we’re settling for less than we deserve. There are many of you who model this — thank you.
  • I’m thankful to the families who showed up and stayed in the uncomfortable space of talking about their dreams. In American terms they “leaned in,” which trust me doesn’t translate well into Chinese or other languages.
  • Thankful to the people who feed me both literally and figuratively.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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