By Jaime Ernesto Uzeta, CEO of Public Allies
It is an understatement to say that the agony and suffering over police brutality and systemic racism pouring from our communities has been overwhelming and relentless. These injustices have shaken our nation to its core and I’m so proud to see so many Public Allies alumni help lead the way in serving as our nation’s conscience. As organizers, we have helped raise awareness, spoken truth to power, and demanded a change in how we operate as a society. As elected officials or in other public service roles, we’re working to redesign the systems that created these injustices in the first place.
In the midst of so much challenging of our nation’s systems, it’s understandable that some of us may see as ringing hollow calls to fix these centuries-old American inequities by the simple act of voting. But when it comes to the 2020 election, these persistent inequities are *exactly* why we need to do all we can to counter a justified cynicism and desire to tune elections out.
With the election around the corner, we’re adding Public Allies’ voice to the clarion call for democracy. Exercising our collective right to vote is central to our work of shaping a “Next Wave” America that is more reflective of our nation’s founding ideals of justice and equity. It provides us the opportunity to elect leaders who will shift the broader narrative around what leadership looks like and ensure that our future is designed by and for everyone.
The presidential contest may be sucking up much of the oxygen of public discourse, yet the mission of Public Allies reminds us that systemic change starts at the local-level—neighborhood by neighborhood. When Americans go to the polls this year, it is true that we will weigh in on a race at the top of the ticket with historic implications. Yet, it is also true that we will elect hundreds-of-thousands of state and local officials with the power to upend generations of racist and anti-poor public policies that have contributed to the staggering racial injustice and inequality we see in our country today.
Concerned about people of color being disproportionately policed and incarcerated? Vote for local prosecutors and sheriff’s who share your views on criminal justice reform. Worried that your city or county isn’t building enough affordable housing? Vote for the local officials vowing to prioritize new zoning rules.
Our Allies can already be found in communities across the country working to fill the cracks in our social systems which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and made more apparent by the Black Lives Matter movement. Our alumni—in roles ranging from leading foundations to holding elected office to running local nonprofits—are redesigning the systems that created those cracks in the first place. We’re showing what can happen when our communities get active, demand change, and vote.
Leaders like Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley (Public Allies Milwaukee ‘05 & ‘08) bring a critical perspective to governing. Just this month, Crowley made national news for his poignant call to action related to police brutality and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha:
“Right now this is about bridging the trust between police departments and communities—this is about action,” he said on CNN. “Systemic racism has been deeply rooted in our laws, our policies and practices… We have to invest in equity… [and in] those neighborhoods that need it the most that have historically been marginalized. And it’s going to take all of us to rise to the occasion.”
He’s also made local headlines by appointing two Black women to key positions in his administration—increasing the number of Black department heads to more than half from only a third when he took office.
Then there is Delaware State Senator Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman (Public Allies Delaware ‘04) who was drawn to public service as an education reform advocate, but has now come to the fore as a leading voice for police reforms in her state as well. “I’m ambitious right now’’ when it comes to police reforms Lockman told the Philadelphia Tribune in June. “I feel a strong sense of urgency and I would love to see us push ourselves to do as much of our agenda sooner rather than later.”
Opa-locka City Commissioner Chris Davis (Public Allies Miami ‘13) recently led the fight to overturn a bizarre and plainly racist ban on “saggy pants” in public spaces, which had been on the books for more than a decade. “I was never in support of it, even as a resident. I felt it disproportionately affected a certain segment of our population, which is young, African-American men,” Davis told the Miami Herald of his decision to take on the pants-based prohibition. Overturning a ban on a certain style of dress may not seem transformative, but it will undoubtedly change how young people of color view their right to express themselves in public spaces.
And it’s indicative of further changes to come. That’s why it’s critical for our Allies and prospective Allies to see themselves as the emerging leaders they are and feel empowered—rather than discouraged—by the dialogue surrounding this election.
And of course there is Michelle Obama, a former Executive Director of Public Allies Chicago who is a phenomenal global leader, inspiring so many people on a daily basis to become involved in public service. One of her many initiatives since leaving the White House is an innovative voter registration campaign called When We All Vote.
Public Allies is committing ourselves over the coming month to encouraging and reenforcing the fact that voting is an act of leadership. And by exercising that right our Allies and their generation are helping to shape an America designed by and for everyone. And in future years, their names may just be on the ballots they cast.
Want to know more about registering to vote and casting a ballot where you live? Check out Vote411, WhenWeAllVote, and everywomenvote2020 to register, check your registration status, and find out what’s on your ballot.