Policy Work as a Blunt or Pointed Instrument of Change

We the Future – Power to the Polls artwork from Shepard Fairey, Amplifer Art. Image: Black woman with an afro, holding a fist up, wearing a red shirt and button “Future Voter.”

It is Black History Month and an important time to reflect and learn more about Black History wherever you are. Please take some time to learn more about Black history and reflect how we’re a better community because of it.

Lately, I’ve been following a lot of policy work at a lot of different levels – organizational policies all the way up to state and even some federal level policy work. One of the trends I’ve noticed is how so much policy work is race neutral, and is like a blunt instrument trying to make important changes. The image I have in my head is higher-level policy work (e.g. federal and state policy work) is like a hammer coming down on a carnival game and the bell ringing because of a hard whack. At lower levels (e.g. organizations, city level, school districts, etc.) the work can be more precise and like a chisel to carve out the desired change.

In order for us to achieve racial equity we need to train ourselves to understand how to embed racial equity principles in all levels of policy work. The more embedded into higher level policy work I can see how hard it is to make changes and shift conversations from being race neutral to being open in talking about race. It is also hard to take a sweeping policy bill and break it down into thinking about how it could impact people of color.

As an example, if we think about education funding bills those will touch every student in the public school system, but the impacts will be felt differently. Yet bills are not written in ways that make these differences clear. The bill is purposely written to be race neutral (at least in many government bodies). This is where we need to do the deeper work of analyzing a bill to think about how it will impact people of color and which people of color will benefit or be harmed.

Many times it is also a zero-sum calculation when trying to figure out which policies or bills can have the greatest impact for people of color. Such as during budgeting sessions there is only so much money to go around, and it needs to be prioritized and hopefully put towards activities that will close racialized gaps and improve POC lives.

An example of how this plays out during a policy making session; let’s say there are three policies up for debate:

  1. A health care clinic in every public high school
  2. Free school lunch
  3. Driver’s education will be available in Title 1 high school, a tiered fee structure is allowed

All of these ideas are worthy of funding, but without deeper analysis it is too easy to just accept the ideas as being good. Some deeper probing might help to understand the racial equity implications:

  1. A health care clinic in every public high school – What is gained by placing a health center in every school? Do some students already have access to health care and can the money be better spent on a targeted strategy?
  2. Free school lunch for all students – Who doesn’t currently qualify for free lunch? Turns out many immigrant students may be going hungry because they don’t apply for free lunch programs because they are afraid of being tracked. Or they don’t qualify for aid because of their immigration status.
  3. Driver’s education in Title 1 schools – This program is targeted to Title 1 high schools. In many schools, Title 1 status often correlates to schools with more POC students. Does the data support the need for students of color not to have access to affordable or free driver’s education classes? Are the schools where this will be implemented in zones where public transit isn’t available?

These examples are to show how it is important to dig a little deeper and interrogate ideas further.

Chisel Approach

One of the advantages of working closer to communities is we can often target interventions more. Often times the closer we can get to communities (e.g. schools, neighborhoods, city) policy work can be targeted. The drawback is the change isn’t as sweeping as at the federal or state level.

At the community level policy work still needs to be done thoughtfully and scrutinized to ensure it can impact people of color in positive ways. In policy work at this level, it is important to be clear about intentions and proposed outcomes.

Tools like the Equity Matters racial equity mapping tool can help you figure out how to target your interventions more. Other racial equity tool kits (often a series of questions) can help you hone your racial equity analysis.

Why I wrote this: To think about how we can target policy work differently

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawai’i; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.