By Princess G. Hoagland Posted on May 10, 2017
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. –Barack Obama
Where We Are
The sense of powerlessness is pervasive in urban communities where the majority of inhabitants are disenfranchised people of color. Being powerless adversely affects our mental health and impedes our ability to function normally within our communities. We are traumatized by the stigma of being viewed as less than. We are disheartened by being treated as though we are incapable of being valuable and important contributors to society. We are tired of being victimized, criminalized, denied basic human rights and relegated to second-class treatment by the police, lawmakers and society at large. We are condensed within poorly-run, resource-deprived, crime-ridden and segregated cities, where even the poor from neighboring affluent municipalities are sent to live. And, most damaging and inexplicable is the fact that we are ostracized and ridiculed by people who look like us and experience identical mistreatment! How do we escape from this paradoxical box, this incessant paradigm?
We are living in arguably one of the most divisive times in the 21st century where the United States is split along the prominent political lines of Democrat and Republican and further divided within party lines. We have become familiar with duplicitous terms like the Republican-Tea Party and the Democratic-Progressives. But how do these labels translate to our ability to navigate the political waters, especially our ability to advocate for our rights as citizens on the local level? Understandably, these abstract concepts of party allegiance do not serve a population of historically disenfranchised citizenry. What these labels create are problems that divide, confuse, intimidate and alienate would-be participants from engaging in the entire process.
Many poor and lower middle-class urbanites, especially people of color, have been stripped of political power. We are discouraged from participating in the very process that would empower us to weigh in on decisions that directly affect our lives. Through institutionalized and systematic neglect, abuse, and mistreatment, many people of color living in urban areas have been mentally traumatized and politically and economically disenfranchised. So where do we go from here?
Politics and Empowerment
Let’s first ask and answer these important questions. What is politics? What does it mean to be political? And, what does it mean to be empowered?
Politics is the “activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” (Oxford Dictionary.) To be political is to be involved in government policy making or to gain or keep power or an advantage (Merriam-Webster). It is “bridging power differences with society with those within the state; bridges that carry inputs both from society to the state and from the state to society.” (Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University.) To be empowered is “to have authority and power to do something.” (Oxford Dictionary.)
Therefore, for us to be politically empowered, we must exercise our right to participate in the creation and implementation of laws that shape our way of living and how we function within our communities. In addition, we must hold elected officials accountable for ensuring our equal protection under the law and for their compliance to upholding the laws.
A Call to Action
The way to transcend from historically, imposed handicaps is through civic participation. Civic participation is “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work with others in a community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy.” (Michael Delli Carpini, Director, Public Policy, The Pew Charitable Trusts. American Psychological Association.) What this means in the context of the urban community is that each and every one of us has a right and a responsibility to engage fully in the political process, especially at the local levels. Politics affect every part of our lives. It is not a separate or distinct entity. Politics define how we live our lives, from the moment we are born until after our bodies are deposed, whether cremated or buried. Laws created, voted on, adopted and implemented will dictate our every movement. When we understand this fundamental truth and begin exercising our political power, our lives, communities and cities will be altered! We will be the change agents we once looked to others to be for us.
10 Steps to Affirm Political Power
This is how YOU become a civic participant:
- Register to vote. Research every candidate running for local election. Attend debates and forums to hear and evaluate what each candidate says she or he will do. Vote, stay engaged, and follow up to hold elected officials accountable!
- Know who your mayor is and when the next mayoral election is. Make an appointment to introduce yourself to the mayor. Attend the mayor’s State of the City Address.
- Know who your council person is for your district or ward and keep in touch. Know when the council meets and attend the meetings.
- Know the members of the board of education, when they meet and attend the meetings. Serve on the board.
- Know your neighbors! Form or join your neighborhood civic association and attend regular meetings.
- Evaluate your surroundings (neighborhood and city) and circumstances (e.g. employment opportunities or lack thereof), list what needs improvement and develop solutions based on your research of best practices. Implement your solutions if legally permissible; OR
- Ask for and follow the protocol for presenting your ideas to the mayor or at city council meetings. Respectfully present your solutions and help officials implement them.
- Get involved with local political organizations. Learn how they operate. Seek advice from political professionals and experts.
- Serve on a committee. Volunteer for organizations that resonate with you.
- Run for office! You qualify if you are an American citizen, 18 years or older.
It is easy to resign ourselves to the status quo of political bystanders, to remain in the box. We are accustomed to that designation and coaxed to maintain that relegated status by institutional beliefs that have historically oppressed people of color. But now we must motivate ourselves to become active participants in this democratic experiment called the United States of America. It is an imperfect experiment but one with the potential of having a meaningful outcome. Each of us, in our endeavor to be our best, must commit to becoming empowered and politically involved. Only then can we move forward in our effort to heal from centuries of physical and mental traumatization and political and economic disenfranchisement and take back our power.
We have been awaken and let out of the box. We will no longer be contained and content with being ignorant. We will no longer allow ourselves to be taken for granted, abused, misused, ignored, mistreated, neglected and exploited by people and entities and systems that feed off and thrive on our impoverished, down-trodden and miseducated selves. We are awake. We see the illness of the current system and are tugging hard at its weakest link. Our eyes are open and we see the evil for what it is. The camouflage has been removed and the ugliness is revealed. The culprits are exposed. As with all things, the old must die and make way for the new. And new life will come out of the decomposed and corrupt system to form the new. And that new system, the one created by our enlightened selves, will devour all things unsavory. And we will never again make the mistake of compliancy. Our eyes will remain open, forever watchful. Forever free of the box.
–Princess G. Hoagland (Credo, 2017)
What impact have movements like Black Lives Matter, The Million Men’s March, The Women’s March on Washington, or documentaries like 13th, I Am Not Your Negro, and Incarcerating Us, or books like Just Mercy, The New Jim Crow, and Between the World and Me or the Presidential election of Donald J. Trump had on you to inspire, motivate, or incite you politically?
Make a list of the steps you will take to become a civic participant.
References, Suggested Books and Media
Black Lives Matter. (2013)
The Million Men’s March. (October 16, 1995; October 10, 2015)
The Women’s March on Washington. (January 21, 2017)
DuVernay, Ava (Producer & Director). (2016). 13th. United States: Forward Movement
Grellety, Remi; Peck, Hebert; Peck, Raoul (Producers), & Peck, Raoul (Director). (2016). I Am Not Your Negro. United States: Velvet Film; Artemis Productions; Close Up Films
Vittorio, Vincent (Producer), & Hines, Regan (Director). (2016). Incarcerating Us. United States: LifeIsMyMovie Entertainment
Stevenson, Brian. (2014). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York, New York: Penguin Random House Publish Group/Spiegel & Grau.
Alexander, Michelle. (2010). The New Jim Crow. New York, New York: The New Press.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York, New York: Spiegel & Grau.