The System Isn’t Broken… Lessons from Policy Leaders on Economic Justice

I reserved my ticket for The Commonwealth Institute’s 2018 Policy Summit, months ahead of time! As is par for the course with any social or “extracurricular” plans I make, by the time the date arrived last week I regretted committing. My to-do list was long, deadlines imminent, I really didn’t have time to take off for a day. It felt self-indulgent.  Perhaps this is telling about what I consider fun? My TSM team encouraged me to go, so I honored my commitment and am certainly thankful I did. (Isn’t that usually the case when we do the thing we almost skipped out on?)  

While I learned so many things that day, there was one takeaway that rose above all others and resonated loud and clear in my brain and on my heart, as if set apart in a different dimension.

The system isn’t broken. The system is working exactly the way the people at the table intend it to work.

A fellow attendee at the summit spoke to this in an open comment period on storytelling, it came up during a conversation around race-forward economic justice, again during discussion of immigration enforcement, and once more in the keynote about moving forward. 

At one point we were asked to work in small groups to identify a hope and vision for our great commonwealth, obstacles that may impede success, and a potential policy solution. What became clear is there exists no viable policy solutions until the right people are at the table. 

Let’s use transportation as an example, since my small group identified that as a root cause of many obstacles. Until a clear focus is identified and the right questions are being asked of the right people, no effective policy can or will be established to sufficiently “fix” the existing transportation problems. 

Here are a handful of potential questions:

  • Why is public transportation important?

  • Who should the infrastructure be built around?

  • Who do we give more weight to, “choice” riders or all-purpose riders?

  • Does/should tourism have a seat at the table?

  • What are we doing about Chesterfield’s large seat?

  • Do community advocates and neighborhood representatives have an equal seat to everyone else?

  • Is an increase in overall ridership the appropriate measurement of success?

Maybe the questions look like something else altogether. I don’t purport to have all the answers because neither my voice nor my experience is comprehensive or more important than people directly impacted by when, where, how fast, how far, and how efficiently public transportation runs. However, not being directly impacted does not mean that I am not impacted, or that it is none of my concern…we know too well what happens when people only care about policy when it comes for them.

..my academic education does not make me more qualified to speak to who needs transportation, where it should run, and if it is working than a person that takes the bus everywhere everyday - or a person that would if they had access to it.

It does mean that no matter how “educated” or “experienced” in strategy, policy, etc. I may be – my academic education does not make me more qualified to speak to who needs transportation, where it should run, and if it is working than a person that takes the bus everywhere everyday - or a person that would if they had access to it.

Over the course of the day, I began to apply this idea to education, health care, LGBTQI rights, immigration, homelessness, fair pay…it applies universally.

Until the right people have an equitable voice, there will be no clear focus and no effective policies, or worse yet, the focus and policies will be clearly misguided. If the system is currently working the way the people at the table want it to then we must adjust who’s at the table. 

Oh, and to come through on a major call to action I received at the summit – this, all of it, is about economic AND racial justice. Nobody gets an “economic justice” free pass in this city or region and not talking about race when it’s about race only makes the people already at the table more comfortable.


*Special thank you to Lillie A. Estes of ALO Community Strategy and members of TCI and LAJC that pushed me to be a better advocate and human.