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In “Race and Social Equity” Susan T. Gooden discusses why race and social equity prove to be a “nervous” area of government

By Nina Worth (LFNC Fellow – Rockingham County)

Days after America inaugurated its first woman of color as Vice President, I finished “Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government.” To an outsider, most would think that the election and subsequent inauguration of the first East Asian and Black Vice President would be the talk-of-the town at a government agency. Here in Rockingham County, any discussion of the event remains nonexistent. Is the absence of discussion due to an ideological rift or is this “a nervous area of government?”

Gooden effectively authors what she calls “racial nervousness,” a proverbial fear of government (on all levels) to adequately address systems of racial and social inequities. This “nervousness” in turn effectively inhibits any mitigation of said systemic inequities in both internal and external public service arenas. People are anxious about talking about systemic inequities at work, largely stemming from the widespread stigma of racial and social equity conversations at work.

This “fear” of discussing critical systemic issues is the common link within public agencies. Individuals are scared to say the wrong thing, worried about being misunderstood, and terrified to speak up amongst a plethora of other concerns. The apprehension to discuss social issues all exist within Gooden’s “nervous area” in government organizations. Much like how we handle other sources of anxiety and fear, Goodman notes that individuals who are afraid to talk about race avoid such discussions and interactions.

The result is an inability to ever properly address systemic racial and social inequities on an organizational level.

Goodman goes on in great detail regarding methods of effective communication around race, ways to adequately address race in MPA programs and government services, and strategies to maximize racial equity. Her work is extensive, but I want to highlight Goodman’s 10 principles for effectively combating the “nervous area” phenomena of race talk at work and further discuss the role of social agents in the future.

 

Despite the emotionally laborious elements of critical talk regarding inequitable systems, public administrators have a responsibility to have a fundamental and organizational understanding of the way race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and ability status can influence the elements of their job. Due to the nature of public administration acting as service providers, the burden largely falls on these agencies to operate in a way that is equitable and procedurally fair. It is incumbent on public administrators to not fall subject to the classic (not to mention disproven) “color-blindness” approach in the methods they systematically and structurally provide services.

Public service leaders can lean on the historical context of inequities and use their implications as a formative blueprint for crafting meaningful, reformative, and effectual change. While it remains comfortable to view our past as both ignominious and far-removed, public leaders have a responsibility to further dissect the history of policy areas. Leaders must go further and accurately identify how previously unjust policies have successfully disseminated into modern policies areas like housing, education, economics, and criminal justice. By analyzing the ways in which racial inequities were shaped in the past, public service leaders are better able to analyze how they affect our present, so we can mitigate them in the future.

Oftentimes, external factors are viewed as the catalyst in encouraging public agencies to begin operating within “the nervous area of government. Political motivators like legal decisions, coupled with a change in social attitudes can often be the driving forces behind agencies to enter the “nervous area.” It is important for changemakers within agencies to recognize and capitalize on societal triggers when there is ample societal pressure to promote organizational change.

Organizational leaders set the tone and have the power to both provide and revoke the environment that encourages “nervousness” in discussions. The power to shape organizational culture is the same power that can encourage tough but necessary conversations. Changemakers must realize that without active senior leadership, sustained progress is at best, improbable.

Goodman reiterates the accountability that falls on the individual within the organization. There is a certain level of willingness or self-awareness an individual must possess to actively contribute and communicate about race and social equity in the workplace effectively. In order to maintain any kind of impetus set by senior leadership, it remains imperative that individuals within organizations are able and willing to practice effective communication strategies regarding race talk in meetings, conversations, and dialogue at work.

Organizations must set forth an area of precedent within their structure that extends the boundaries on racial equity activities that reside in “nervous areas.” While organizations usually have a “public facing” understanding of what are considered acceptable conversations, that does not fully encompass the “real” boundaries of employees. There needs to be a cultural reset in organizations so that there is a redefining of acceptable boundaries that includes the “nervous areas” where discussion of racial-equity does not become analogous with fear.

Only serving in government administration for less than a year, I can recognize perfect solutions are impossible in any sphere of government. Despite the “uncomfortable turbulence” and “peak nervousness,” the path towards equitable solutions is inherently designed to directly confront issues of race, head-on. Those who exist in these agencies must accept that the path towards structural equity can be precarious, however the lack of an ideal solution does not warrant its cessation.

Government agencies, graduate programs, and other organizations must be invested in self-evaluation and assessment of the racial-equity elements of their own services and practices. Agencies must be willing to routinely reflect on their own outcomes and identify best practices within the confines of socially and racially equitable practices.

The path towards racial discrimination eradication includes more than most people are comfortable with. A collective effort of public agencies is required and necessary. If there is ever to be systemic equity, it is not enough for all forms of racial discrimination within the legal framework to be nullified. The formal process of ending racial discrimination within the confines of the law is necessary for systemic equality but it is not enough to be a sufficient condition for yielding equitable outcomes. The path towards systemic equity must also include the active participation of public sector organization and public agency systems.

Gooden’s work examines different examples of substantive racial equity work in case studies from Seattle, Wisconsin, and within the EPA. There are concrete examples of organizations who are taking steps to effectively navigate this “nervous area of government” quite successfully. It’s important to note that there was no single, definitive approach that allowed these organizations to become successful, and the work continues for them. However, what Gooden perfectly captures is that the “nervous,” difficult work of fighting systemic discrimination is indeed possible. For changemakers and public servants, I believe it is important to consider the principles that Gooden describes. Effectively note that yes, the work is hard but with the right strategy, possible. The biggest takeaway that I believe is crucial to capture is that the path towards systemic change is one that requires a plethora of different players- and perspectives. The plight toward progress embraces “nervousness” and welcomes discomfort. Moving forward, I think young changemakers should recognize this factor and view Gooden’s principles not as obstacles we must overcome but as an outline for navigating this crucial but uncomfortable area. Eventually, in hopes that one day social and racial equity are no longer seen as “nervous” or taboo but rather welcomed conversation used to improve society for all.

By Nina Worth
02/05/21