Advancement Project California The Best Resistance is Our Collective Success

Starting from a Place of Knowing

On June 30 I had the chance to open up a briefing at the California State Capitol for Advancement Project’s latest research report, Unequal Voices: California’s Racial Disparities in Political Participation. This was an exciting moment that caps nearly a decade of work we have done to lift up the voices of people of color in policy decision-making that affects their lives every day.

Of course, you should check out the report. But I wanted to share my introduction because it shows what’s at stake and the very real impact increasing political participation can have in communities.

In many ways my political awakening started with the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. I call it an uprising because (as tragic as it was) it can be seen as an earnest attempt for the disaffected and disenfranchised in Los Angeles to finally be heard.

I remember thinking just how fragile it all was. That the safety and order we work so hard to create in our societies and our lives can so easily go up in flames. The lasting impression for me is best summed up by a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘A riot,’ he said, ‘is the language of the unheard.’

"The safety and order we work so hard to create in our societies and our lives can so easily go up in flames."

That experience has animated my work at Advancement Project; the commitment that never again can we let the fabric of our community become so torn and tattered that it can go up in flames again.

That was 24 years ago. Yet in 2012 it happened again and this time in ‘the happiest place on earth’. After a week of police shootings, the streets of Anaheim were on fire. The city ground to a halt. I’m sure even Mickey Mouse took cover.

The community had tried to reform the police department, especially around learning how best to interact with residents in the low-income Latino communities in the “flatlands,” which make up the majority of the population. But the more affluent, all-white political class, who lives in Anaheim Hills, wasn’t listening.

The community noticed that the people making decisions that affected them didn’t look like them, didn’t live near them, and didn’t hear their concerns. Instead of going for purely tactical wins like reforming the police department, they decided to think big and entirely reconfigure the political chess board. Using the power of the California Voting Rights Act, the unheard majority sued to overhaul the political and electoral system in their city, and they won. Now city council members will be elected within districts instead of citywide, which guarantees that the flatlanders will be represented in the future.

And that’s what Unequal Voices is all about. It documents how our current structures and practices of local and statewide governance are designed to hear some voices more strongly than others.  At Advancement Project, we are not okay with that. We don’t believe it is fair, or equitable, or even sustainable when we look back at what happened in communities whose voices were unheard for too long.

The New California

This is a particularly important conversation to have since California continues to go through so many demographic shifts. California is now a majority-minority state, with 60% of the population people of color. There is a wave of diverse people moving eastward, due to the housing crunch and effects of gentrification along the coasts.

We see a clear choice. Either we think seriously about building systems and practices for the new California where all of our residents have the resources and ability to participate in meaningful ways. Or we can settle for business as usual, and set our watches for the next uprising. Today is about how we engineer for that new California.

The Advancement Project Way

The way we show up is that we start with knowing – with deep rigor – what it is we are truly talking about. Our goal is to understand the data that allows us to frame the issue intelligently and to find the way to achieve equity and build for the future. In this case we look at political participation as broader than voting, as important as voting is; we know that important policy decisions are made every day and most of the time the people who those decisions affect are not in the room.

But we go beyond reports and data. An unofficial tagline we always strive for is ‘We get “stuff” done.’ Once we understand an issue through research, we go on to build alliances with those affected and the decisionmakers. We provide tools to community so they can more effectively speak for themselves. And we make significant policy change which, in turn, changes conditions on the ground in communities across the state.

The launch of Unequal Voices is only the start of our work on this issue. Our Political Voice program will be convening community-based organizations across the state to hear firsthand their experiences in political engagement. And a follow-up report will be released in fall of 2016 that presents data from a survey of Californians of color. In the longer term we will be partnering with community leaders and local political officials to make key shifts in the outreach and engagement strategies that increase the participation and impact of communities of color in California.

In Solidarity,

John


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