Voting and Equity

I just got back from the PolicyLink Equity Summit in Los Angeles. Being surrounded by palm trees and so much talk about equity was like being drunk on jalapeno margaritas for three days.

Before I left I voted; I’ve been ruminating about this voting and equity for several days. Attending the Summit refined my thinking about why elections matter to People of Color and why we need to ensure our votes count.

Every Vote, Every Ballot Matters
PandaButtVotePeople of Color need to take voting seriously. It is an important way for our communities to have our priorities heard, and a say in how we want to live our lives. As a society we have a long way to go to getting equity right in elections. As one speaker at the Summit said “If voting didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be trying to take away your vote.”

Elections and voting are not my everyday thinking, I spend more time thinking about the best banh mi sandwiches and equity in education. What I learned was problems are still prevalent in the election system. A panelist from Common Cause spoke about how an Assemblyperson called her during redistricting and said “I won’t have another f**ing Asian in my district,” she represented an area close to Chinatown in San Francisco, so it’s kinda hard not to have an f**ing Asian in her district. Another speaker told a story about an African American was denied a vote because she was expunged from the voter rolls because her name was the same as someone else, and because there was no same day registration she couldn’t vote. Or in another place during redistricting apartment buildings were split into two separate districts—I’m still scratching my head on that one. These aren’t the stories from the Civil Rights Era, these happened within recent history.

Every vote matters and we need to ensure we are counted. Here are my four take-aways from the Equity Summit around voting:

  • We need to vote—We need to band together and remind people to vote. We need to show up and cast our ballots, we need our ballots counted. Find someone who isn’t registered and hold their hand as they register, then remind them to vote.
  • Remove barriers to voting—We need to understand why People of Color aren’t voting. Is it because of crap-filled policies keeping voters away? We need to call government on their stupid policies that are keeping people from voting. We need to create greater access to voting (more on this later).
  • People of Color on Ballots—To my tribe, my ohana, we need to step up, we need to start getting ourselves elected to public offices. Every elected office from School Board Directors to President is important. Even if we don’t win running for office changes the conversation and puts a different narrative forward. I am so proud of my friends and colleagues who made the leap and ran for office—you are brave, you are speaking truth to power, and we are better because of you.
  • Census—2020 will be the next U.S. Census, and we need to be counted. I learned at the Summit how important the census is to People of Color. It is the one time where everyone in America counts. As the speaker said “It doesn’t matter if you are 1 day old or 100 years old, it doesn’t matter how or why you are here, you count as one.” We need to be counted so we can be seen. Start planning how you’ll reach out and get people into the census count.

Access to Voting
DSCN3414As I mentioned earlier I voted and I am annoyed, I had to stick a stamp on my ballot. I realized my problem is a privilege problem. No one took away my right to vote, I got my ballot, and I can afford the stamp. But I am calling fakequity on the lack of access to cast my ballot without the “stamp-tax.”

If we’re going get communities of color to vote en masse we need to create better access to voting. In King County there are no permanent ballot drop boxes in S Seattle, thus limiting early voting for an area with a high population of People of Color and higher poverty rates. Early voting is important in capturing more ballots. Here are two ideas to capture more votes:

  1. Give people the stamp, Universal Access to Voting: We need to remove barriers to voting and create systems where people purposefully opt-out. If we give people prepaid return envelopes it removes the cost and mobility (getting to a drop box) barriers. We already know from other sectors that prepaid envelopes yield higher returns, why do you think you get so many credit card offers with prepaid envelopes? If we value voting as much as we say we do than it should be fully funded out of general fund taxes or a small fee on something like the cost of getting a driver’s license. It is a small price to pay for a right that impacts all of our lives. I’ll tax myself the cost of a banh mi sandwich for greater equity in voting.
  2. Go Where the People Are, Ballot Boxes Everywhere: One of the simplest ideas in equitable design is you go where people are. On a weekly basis I’m at the library, grocery store, train station, and sandwich deli; we need ballot boxes where we live, work, and play. Now someone is going to say multiple ballot boxes will expose the system to fraud, this is a fakequity argument. Voter fraud, while it still exist, is rare so the argument that this might incite voting fraud shouldn’t trump fair access to voting.

Voting Movement
The final idea is we need a movement around voting. Voting is so important we can’t get complacent and believe that it is another person’s job to encourage communities of color to vote. Maybe we need a hashtag to start the movement: #POCVote or #FakequityVoting.

Go vote.

Posted by Erin

Treading Water in the Fakequity Pool

Hi, Last week we wrote about tacos and listening to diverse voices. We’re not alone in sharing that message. After you read this week’s post by CiKeithia, go check out Sheri Brady’s Building Many Stories into Collective Impact at the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog. She shares a similar message, but without a taco analogy. -erin


Pool-and-DrinksIt’s ironic that I would use the example of treading water because anyone one who knows me knows my feelings about swimming.  It’s not what you’re thinking, insert stereotype of black people and water here; I find pleasure sipping a drink in a cute glass poolside with an occasional dip of my toes in the water.

I’ve worked with children, and in support of children and families, for over ten years. I’ve learned many things from working with families, and it is my ongoing work in communities where I continue to learn. Lately, I’ve become overwhelmed by the idea that those of us doing this work think we know it all when it comes to community. I feel like I’m treading water in a fakequity pool.

Community Engagement the Fad
Community engagement is the new fad, like the return of the flare leg jeans. You’ve seen the announcements: “We want to hear from you,” take this online survey, flyers inviting you to see the new space, and my all-time favorite “Join us for a community conversation!”

Where do these ideas come from? I’ll award a few points for trying, but there’s more to understand. What good is the survey if it’s only available online? You’re only reaching people with access to computers and the internet. Are you planning on sharing the results?

What good is the flyer if it’s only shared in easily accessible communities and not accompanied by a personal invitation? Would you attend an event if you didn’t know anyone? Maybe if the food is really good or the speaker is outstanding, but a personal invitation makes you want to engage more.9063547_big

Finally, a community conversation is absolute nonsense. In order for it to be a conversation then both sides get to be heard, otherwise it is a presentation. And don’t collect feedback through collected index cards, the community doesn’t know what happens with that feedback.

Believing in Community Engagement, Here’s What to do

We need to create space for voices that are normally excluded to be heard. It’s tough to examine our current practices and turn the lens on ourselves. No one wants to have their positive intentions questioned, but it’s required if we want to get better. If you can’t receive the tough criticism you are most likely perpetuating fakequity.

I feel like I’m treading water because it’s the online surveys, flyers, and one-way community conversations that have me trying to keep my head above water. Truth is there is no single way to engage the community, but rather a variety of ways and if you are truly are invested in community you’ll do the hard work. Showing up and building relationships will get you better results than an online survey or a one-time conversation.

Working Towards Equity

Next time there’s a survey challenge the unintended results of only hearing from those who are loudest. Don’t just make a flyer, make personal connections beyond your usual networks, and finally stop with the community conversations if it only serves your agency’s purpose of checking the box that you offered it and now you can move on with the work.

My feeling of treading water will never completely go away. The frustration of trying to keep my head above water however will be eased when there are others around me who ask hard questions, listen, and challenge the status quo. After all I look much better sitting poolside sipping a cute drink rather than struggling to stay afloat.

posted by CiKeithia

The Danger of the Single Loud Noisy Story from a Community Perspective

If you haven’t watched the TED talk The Danger of the Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, watch it. Ms. Adichie is eloquent about why diverse stories matter. No single story encompasses a whole community’s narrative. Too often we listen to the loudest or nosiest stories. Sadly too often the loudest voices aren’t from communities the most impacted by hardship or furthest from opportunities.

When I started my current job Stephan, a mentor, asked me “Where are you getting your information?” I couldn’t answer him. I really didn’t know where I would get my information– from friends, people I like, colleagues, Facebook, the news. Benita Horn, a well-respected equity leader, calls this access F.B.I.– Friends, Brothers, and In-Laws. Quickly I realized the Yoda-like wisdom they gave me. They were telling me to be careful of listening to the loudest and nosiest voices or people whom I like and think like me.

Communities are diverse and sadly systems (government, institutions, organizations, etc.) are designed to hear the nosiest, loudest, and most organized voices. Change often comes via the majority or those who have connections. However the majority or those with access to power is not always the most impacted by a decision.

Here is an example…
tofu tacoA popular restaurant, Tacos for the People, decided to democratize their menu and are open to input from the community. I really love marinated tofu tacos with cilantro and want them kept on a menu, I’m flirting with vegan/vegetarianism so I will claim minority status (for the sake of this example). For Tuesday’s lunch I decide to “vote with my wallet” and order a fistful of tofu tacos.

When I arrive at Tacos for the People I can’t get past the front door because twenty people wearing matching colored shirts and holding signs are lined up to testify in favor of fish tacos. They knew to show up because they organized via Facebook and Twitter. A member of the group alerted the media, and others in the group went to college with the founder of Tacos for the People.

If we believe that tofu tacos versus fish tacos on a menu is a zero-sum-game, in other words only one taco will remain on the menu, the odds are much more in favor of the fish tacos. Tofu tacos, even though they serve an important need for a minority (vegan-vegetarian) community, has little chance of saving their place on the menu. This is the danger in only listening to the loud matching t-shirt people, their agendas rise up and overcast voices of others who have important needs.

“If you’re not at the table, it means you’re on the menu.”
Now before we start poking holes in the example and say the tofu taco lovers should organize and get their own shirts let’s add another layer to this example. Let’s say the tofu taco community is actually a community of color, an immigrant or refugee community, or another community such as foster care, special needs, etc. that have additional hurdles to overcome in order to mobilize and make their voices heard. Showing up to testify at a State Capitol or school board meeting often means having to rearrange work and parenting schedules quickly, figure out and budget for transportation, and navigate the weird politics of testifying (i.e. how to sign in, when to step forward, what to say in two-minutes, speaking in English if English isn’t their preferred language, etc.)—those are a lot of barriers. An equitable approach would be to have the system open up their table and ensure more voices are heard. A mentor told me “If you’re not at the table, it means you are on the menu,” which means you need to be at decision making tables to influence decision making.

How to Listen and Who to Listen to
Thinking back to the advice I received from my mentor, I’ve tried to act upon it. It is easy to get swept up in the voices of the majority and to think everyone thinks their way. It is also easy to default to those we know and their voices, this is fakequity. We have to remember communities are diverse and those farthest from opportunity have important stories we need to seek out. kungfu-panda

As leaders and community builders we need to seek out the voices and messages, not just the noisy voices. It takes time and effort to get out and find different voices, but the return on the investment of time and energy is worth it. Start with people you know then ask them to introduce you to others, and keep doing that. Ask someone to take you to a meeting you wouldn’t normally attend because their community is different and sit and listen, and go back again and again. Don’t talk at the meeting, just listen. Over time trust builds and people will share their thoughts with you and relationships start. Going fast and listening to noise is easy—fakequity. Going slow and building relationships is EQUITY.

UPDATE 10.20.15: We’re excited to see more voices reinforcing the message of the need for multiple stories. Sheri Brady, from the Aspen Forum, published Building Many Stories into Collective Impact which looks at the need for diverse stories in collective impact efforts. Check it out and leave her a comment, for that matter leave a comment here too.

posted by Erin