Policy with a Conscience: Angela Glover Blackwell

A movement is not a flash of light, it's a flame, a torch passed from one generation to the next, so wrote the poet Maya del Valle. They're words treasured and lived by our next guest, Angela Glover Blackwell. Throughout a career in philanthropy, research and advocacy, Blackwell's been dedicated to using public policy to change communities and lives. Under President Obama, she served on the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. She started Policy Link in 1999, something she calls a research and action institute. It works with policy makers especially in the areas of health, housing, transportation, education and infrastructure. In 2013, with Policy Link, she collaborated with the Center for American Progress to write and release All In Nation, an America That Works For All.

Angela Blackwell:Thank you, happy to be here.

Laura Flanders:Just reading that introduction, the Obama Administration already feels like a very long time ago.

Angela Blackwell:Yeah, a planet in a distant place.

Laura Flanders:Can you compare what you were working on then with what you feel you're working on now?

Angela Blackwell:It is hard to compare. Under the Obama Administration, we were struggling and fighting to try to make progress but we had a partnership with the White House, lots of people who were in it. There were initiatives that we had been fighting to get for years that were finally beginning to take hold. Now, everything is closed off. If it's not closed off, I find that I and my colleagues are afraid to even touch it because we don't think anything good is going to come out of it. The contrast is just completely stark. We move from an administration that was trying to overcome decades of neglect in local communities and struggling with inadequate resources to partner with people in local communities who felt they had wisdom about what needed to happen to now, an administration that is at odds with everything that we believe in. Shutting down, taking away the safety net, it is awful.

Laura Flanders:Is all lost?

Angela Blackwell:All is never lost. All is never lost. You started off talking about our moment. This is our moment. It is going to be our moment. The good news is that we actually had found each other across the spectrum of those who were working for social change and inclusion before this administration came in. We are having to step back from the things that kept us from being completely united because we were nuancing this or we had a priority that was slightly more important. We now see that we have to get behind those who are being attacked at the moment. We have to get behind a few common ideas and so, it is our moment but we're going to have to struggle to make this moment about progress and not just resistance. We've got to be in a resistance mode but if all we do is resist for a number of years, we will have slipped far back.


Laura Flanders:How do we make progress and maybe more importantly, where do we make progress? Somebody said to me the other day, "Washington is like a gorgon. We need to look away and focus elsewhere." In the cities? In the states? In your neighborhoods? Where do you see the greatest opportunity to claim this moment for making some kind of progress?

Angela Blackwell:The organization that I lead, Policy Link has always been grounded in the struggles and the campaigns and the ideas and innovations in local communities. We found, especially under the Obama administration that we could look to Washington to be able to build on that wisdom. I want to look away from Washington right now but can't afford to do that because we have to protect what we have achieved. We have to resist awful things happening and this is a time when we can return to our roots, return to our roots of innovation in cities.

Return to our roots of understanding the struggles across geographies, from rural communities to declining suburban communities to inner city communities and as we do that, we will come up with strategies that will be able to get into federal policy at some time in the future but right now, I think that the hope really comes from seeing local communities stand up. The sanctuary movement is really thrilling. Looking at local communities decide that they are going to protect all the people who live in their jurisdiction's, whether they are residents, they're all the residents, whether they are citizens or not.

I think that the people who were leading local jurisdictions are finding that they have real common ground with advocates that they have been spending too much time pushing against. I think that some of the innovation that is going to come is we create ways to fight the federal government. I think fighting the federal government is not a bad thing at all times. I think the federal government is there to be able to serve the people but it is a system that only serves the people when the people make demands.

Laura Flanders:Clarify that a little bit because for progressive people, particularly people who came up through the Civil Rights movement, any undermining of the principle of respecting federal rule is dangerous. It takes you back to eras of states rights which never worked for civil rights if you know what I mean.

Angela Blackwell:I grew up in the Civil Rights movement and I know that the federal government did not come running and embracing the Civil Rights movement.

Laura Flanders:Sure.

Angela Blackwell:It got pushed to embrace the Civil Rights movement and it needed to be pushed even more. When I talk about having to push the federal government, I'm just saying that I think that during the Obama administration, those of us who would call ourselves progressive and activists didn't push as hard as we would have if somebody else had been in that White House. I think one of the positives that's going to come out of this negative moment that we're in is a revitalization of democracy and democracy needed revitalization. That people who understand that it is that tug and pull with the federal government with local government that actually leads to good policy solutions need to get back in that pulling and that tugging.

I think that across the country, we're letting those people who are almost professionals decide how democracy is going to work. I think the people are taking it back into their own hands. They're saying, "You professionals didn't exactly know what you were doing and we're going to help you learn what it means to have your ear to the ground, to be in community, understanding the struggles of people trying to raise families. That the divides that have been fanned by our politicians aren't real divides when you actually get into community and talk with neighbors."

Laura Flanders:Give us an example. You do a lot of work on equity. Let's talk about what equity is and then one of your models is the model of the curb cut and how justice kind of trickles up if you will to use the language of Dean Spade.

Angela Blackwell:When I use the term equity, I mean just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential. Such a simple notion.

Laura Flanders:Somebody didn't get the memo.

You do a lot of work on the question of equity. What is it and what models do you have of doing that work that goes across divides or apparent divides?

Angela Blackwell:When I use the term equity, I mean just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential. Equity really looks at the outcomes that we want for people and it backs into what the inputs need to be. When we think about this extraordinary inequality that we are experiencing right now, equity is more important than ever. I think that equity is the anecdote to inequality. If we really create a space in which everybody is able to reach their full potential, we are pushing against these extraordinary disparities that we have seen but this notion of equity is one that really pushes against the notion of a zero sum game. Equity is not a zero sum game.

Laura Flanders:Zero sum meaning if I have more rights, you'll have fewer?

Angela Blackwell:It is not about that at all. What it is about is by making sure that everybody can participate, everybody benefits. The example that I use to make that point is the example of those curb cuts in the sidewalk that are there because of the advocacy of people with disabilities in wheelchairs who even as they gain rights, civil rights, could not really realize those rights if they couldn't physically get around the communities that they lived in. Through their advocacy, we got those curb cuts but how many times have people been pushing strollers and not had to pick those contraptions up. Workers had their burden eased when they're pulling wagons and pushing carts.

How many times have we just been trying to catch a train and we were able to do it because of those curb cuts and something else we know is that those curb cuts save the lives of unencumbered pedestrians because they orient people to cross at the corner. Study after study has documented the lives that are saved. The point is that when we solve problems for the most vulnerable, with nuance and specificity, the benefits cascade up and out. The same is true for the economy. That we have an economy in which people are being left behind and the people who are being left behind the most, those who were formerly incarcerated, those who are recent immigrants, those who haven't been able to get the benefit of a robust education.

If we focus on those people who've been left behind, who are disproportionately of color by the way and becoming the majority very rapidly, if we get it right for those who are being left behind, the economy improves. We know that if we close the wage gap between people are white and people who are of color, the GDP would be 2.1 trillion dollars higher so the benefits are extraordinary. What we need to do is to begin to embrace this notion, that we really all are in this together. An example is transportation. Transportation is one of those things that we take for granted if you have a car. For people who don't have a car, they are dependent on public transit.

Public transit is used mostly by people of color. Sixty percent of the ridership is of color. People who are low income without cars, often families struggling, women raising children by themselves, totally dependent on public transit. When we invest in a good public transit system though, not only do we help those people who can't get around without it, we help employers because their employees are getting there on time. When those systems go to the places where people live and they run during the hours that people need them to run, there's less absenteeism. People are getting to doctor's appointments, people are able to participate in the civic life of community. Investments in public transit while serving those who don't have cars often benefit everybody, including the climate because we know if we get people out of cars, we have that as well. This notion of equity in the curb cut really ought to be animating our movement as we go forward.

Laura Flanders:Talk about the particular American experience and we don't have a whole lot more time but as I listen to you, I think, what a lot of people say is that other countries like the Scandinavian countries are able to convey, are able to achieve the sorts of policy initiatives that you're talking about because they have this sense of all in nation because they're more homogenous nations, have been, historically getting less so. People will say the New Deal went through because it mostly benefited white people. The war on poverty less so because it was going to benefit people of color, single moms of color, you name it.

In so far as and maybe I'm grasping at straws here but in so far as we never finished that work, and perhaps we didn't because we didn't really want to grapple with the legacy of racism and white supremacy in American so we hoped that everybody would just come along with this kind of de-racialized version of social services and what's good for you is good for me without us really getting into it. In so far as maybe we sidestepped it, does this moment where it's kind of life or death for us with respect to our public services, whether we do believe we're an all in nation or whether we buy in to the demagogue setting one group against another group for their own interests, even to the point of cutting programs that benefit the very people who voted for Trump. I'm seeing some of these medical programs that he's cutting off that serve his voters in Mississippi and Alabama when they can't get doctors. I'm talking to long but is it the kind of opportunity that I'm describing in this kind of moment because otherwise, you can talk all in nation all you like, he's talking just us nation and he's got a larger megaphone at this moment.

Angela Blackwell:The history of the United States of America has been the history of racism and race. Until the country comes to grips with that, it is not going to realize it's full potential but it's gotten to a moment where it's going to fail as a nation. This will be a failed nation if it doesn't overcome the legacy of racism and let me tell you why. We're becoming rapidly a nation which the majority will be people of color. Since the summer of 2012, the majority of all babies born in this country have been of color. Now the majority of all those under five, by the end of this decade, by the end of 2019, the majority of all children under eighteen and by 2030, the majority of the young workforce.

We have become a nation in which the fate of the nation is dependent on those people who have been marginalized and discriminated against. The fate of the nation is dependent on what happens to people of color. If people of color don't become the middle class, there'll be no middle class. Therefore, while we have failed to live up to our moral obligation as a nation to do right by others, we have moved beyond morality and it has become an economic, a democratic and a national imperative. Now, I hope that people will hear that message because we're going to become a nation majority of people of color whether people deny it or not, whether they hear it or not.

That's what we're going to be and I think that this moment that we're in right now, awful as it feels in terms of pitting one group against another, lifting the voices of hate right up into our living rooms and to the top of the agenda, I think this is the last gasp and while that last gasp can be shrill and dangerous and even long, it is the last. We are moving to a different place and I'm hoping that because we have had the contradiction sharpened so much because of this last election, that people will find each other and find what they have in common. I'm starting to speak at rural summits now and to talk to people in rural communities.

It has always been a part of my talk because I know that the issues of rural communities in many ways are the same as inner city communities, nuanced differently. You've got to pay attention to that nuance but the issues of transportation and broadband and access to healthy food and access to jobs that pay living wages, these are fundamentally the same issues. We have to find the language to talk about equity inclusion. We have to paint a picture for people that is not frighting but one in which everybody will have a place and be respected. We have to understand that just as I've said, we're not going to get on the other side of race until we go through race, we're not going to get on the other side of this ugliness that we're in right now until we go through it and we've got to go right through it. We've got to be strong, we have to be positive, we have to grab the people who want what we want along the way. Come out with more people than we went in with but it will be okay but we've got to fight to make it okay.

Laura Flanders:Yeah. Who are you inspired by in all of this?

Angela Blackwell:I'm inspired by the people. I'm inspired by the people. I'm inspired by the people who were here and not documented and going about their lives. I'm inspired by the creativity of those people who when they send their kids to school don't know if they're going to be there when they come home. I'm inspired by the kids who go to school, trying to pay attention. I'm inspired by those who are getting the brunt of our hate and standing up and saying, "We're here. We're going to be here. Join me."



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