The Hope and Work of Democracy

Natalie Aflalo
February 24, 2017

Panel at our conveningEveryday Democracy believes that supporting relationships across civic practices is key to building an equitable and participatory democracy. That’s why on Day 1 of our national convening, The Moment is Now: Democracy That Works for All, which took place Dec. 8-10 in Baltimore, MD, we brought together four individuals from various sectors to discuss the intersections among their work for democracy, equity, and voice.

Throughout the conversation, moderated by Ceasar McDowell, Professor of Practice and Community Development in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, panelists working in the fields of education, immigration, mental health, and criminal justice modeled how we can connect and work across silos to improve equity. Speakers on the panel included Bilal Sekou, PhD and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Hartford; Quyen Truong, Outreach and Evaluation Manager for the North Central Regional Mental Health Board; Yadira Sanchez, Associate Director of Development for Mi Familia Vota; and Shaun Adamec, Director of Strategic Communications for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

McDowell, in his opening remarks, introduced the panelists as people who are part of “hope work,’” the everyday, “real work of democracy” that involves “making incremental, equitable improvements every day.” He defined democracy as a process: “When people who are interrelated struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them, so they can realize a future that’s an equitable improvement on the past.” Democracy, in other words, requires thinking and working across sectors and across differences; the four panelists explored how to do this.

Truong summarized the necessity of her work: “To engage fully in a democracy, we have to…have access to [healthcare].” However, as both she and Sanchez explained, cultural stigma, a lack of providers of color/providers who look like the people they’re serving, a lack of translation services, and undocumented status can all preclude healthcare access. The trauma experienced by so many immigrant communities makes overcoming these barriers all the more necessary, they said.

Truong also identified a need for “coordination of care.” Mental health resources exist, she explained, but a lack of coordination between social service sectors means, for example, that prisoners are not accessing the mental health care or drug and alcohol counseling they may need. Truong was hopeful, though – she said that she sees a growing awareness of mental health and of the services available to people in their communities.

Sekou pointed out that the need for coordination of care extends to connecting law enforcement to mental health support. “If an officer is coming to…the job and they’re under a great deal of stress,” he said, “that may play out on the streets.” While officers “need better training for how to deal with people who have mental health issues…they themselves [also] need…a better support system to help them deal with the things that they struggle with as police officers.”

Adamec argued that school systems have to recognize the realities of their students, who he said “are coming to schools with more complex issues than they ever have.” They, and in some cases, their families, need mental health and counseling support in order to succeed academically.

The Presidential election was fresh in everyone’s mind. Panelists expressed uncertainty about the impact of the new administration on their work: Truong wondered what will happen to the Affordable Care Act, to Medicaid, to funding for mental health initiatives and addiction programs; Sekou worried about the impact Jeff Sessions, as Attorney General, could have on voting rights and continuing systematic practices of police abuse; and Sanchez and her community are anxious about the prospect of mass immigration raids and deportations.

Sanchez, however, advised us not to overlook the importance of local and state politics, and the hope to be found there. She pointed out that in Arizona, where Mi Familia Vota is headquartered, a longtime county sheriff who terrorized the communities he was supposed to serve was removed from office. In addition, a young, Latino democrat who ran on a platform emphasizing more accessible voting has replaced a longtime incumbent as Maricopa County Recorder. Sanchez encouraged us to continue supporting local and state politicians who are committed to a progressive agenda. “Impact can be possible if we engage civically,” she said.

Earlier on in the conversation, McDowell asked about the good news. Truong replied, “We are the good news.” This panel, and the next two days of the convening, proved exactly that. The speakers demonstrated that equitable, inclusive, democratic change happens when work to strengthen democracy happens at all levels of society, and when there are structures and systems to connect the work.

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