Bankole: Gov. Whitmer must talk directly to the people
Within a week of becoming governor, Gretchen Whitmer has laid down markers with some executive directives to balance the scales of justice for many Michiganians.
From directing the state to utilize qualified businesses in geographically disadvantaged areas, enhancing protections for the LGBTQ community to pushing for equal pay for women in state government, Whitmer is demonstrating that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But while these actions from the executive office are important and encouraging, they are far from improving the lives of many people in vulnerable communities. And if Whitmer wants her administration to be viewed in the long run as a drum major for justice, she must go beyond the periphery of executive directives.
“You cannot be an effective problem-solver from a distance. There are details and nuances to problems that you will miss unless you are close enough to observe those details,” Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told a Carnegie Foundation Summit in 2016.
Stevenson, who has led a protracted crusade against inequality as both a lawyer and a scholar-activist, has been repeating this theme on the power of proximity at several other forums since then. He told a gathering of top executives in Silicon Valley last year to “do some uncomfortable and inconvenient things,” as well as to “find ways to get proximate to the poor and vulnerable” to understand how to deal with their plight.
Going by Stevenson’s postulation, Whitmer as the state’s chief executive can have lasting and difference-making impact on the lives of the state’s poorer residents, if she goes to the people.
To this end, the governor should employ a town hall-style model of speaking directly to ordinary people on a regular basis to feel their pulse on the crucial issues shaping her administration, and how it will impact them.
After all, it was at a town hall meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in Detroit, not a high-profile gatekeeper forum or dinner, that Whitmer publicly committed to appoint a cabinet-level poverty secretary after coming into contact with people cut out of the dialogue about their future in a city with unacceptable levels of economic inequality.
A typical mainstream candidate would have skipped that poverty town hall during the gubernatorial primary for a more comfortable and predictable venue where the questions center around everything else including their favorite food, except the issue of poverty.
But Whitmer did not decline the invitation, and instead came to engage that evening. In fact, as I was moderating the forum, I observed that sometimes she stood up to respond to tough questions from older African-American seniors and young activists, who came desperately seeking answers to the challenges facing Michigan’s largest city.
The governor should continue that kind of up close conversation with the people at the bottom rung of the economic scale who would be most impacted by her pen.
Though Detroit could be viewed as a city of gatekeepers, it’s been that way for a long time. Often, they are people with long and fancy titles who cannot tell you in one simple sentence what they actually do except for upholding the status quo, and giving a litany of excuses as to why things can’t move in a different direction.
In fact, in the course of explaining why things remain the same, some will take you on a historical excursion of major events in the life of the city to try to convince you of why creating change for the better among the city’s perennial underclass is like climbing Mount Everest.
But Whitmer shouldn’t be deterred by any of that. She should take the unconventional route and talk to the Detroit that is deserving of greater economic opportunities but often missing at the table of equity. Because you can’t enhance the socioeconomic well-being of people confined in disadvantaged neighborhoods in this city or those who live in abandoned enclaves across the state from the comfort of a velvet cushion in an executive office. You can’t do it from the secluded world of an ivory tower, either.
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