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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Brandi Blessett
February 10, 2017
In December Administration Theory & Praxis published a special symposium titled “Difficult Conversations: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice in the Training of Public Administrators.” As guest editor along with two other colleagues, Jeannine M. Love and Tia Sherèe Gaynor, we were interested in providing pedagogical strategies for public administration professors to effectively navigate classroom discussions around race and social justice. My co-authored article specifically sought to identify theorists (e.g. bell hooks, Angela Davis, Jane Jacobs, Naomi Kline, among others) and theoretical perspectives (e.g. inclusive feminism, critical urban planning and democratic cultural pluralism) that serve as a supplement to hegemonic discourse typically fundamental to public administration education. Counternarratives are therefore important because they offer a different interpretation of public policy decisions based on the lived experiences of people directly impacted by said decisions.
I’ve recently returned from teaching a community development course in Puerto Rico. The study of cities, their rise and fall and their evolution, is something that drives my professional research and personal interests. However, I was unnerved by the idea of leading a discussion on the island about community development when I did not know any more than what was discussed through media outlets. News reports argued Puerto Rico was under significant financial stress, burdened by high taxes, governed inefficiently and plagued by poverty. Despite this discourse, I recognized there was still a different story, a counternarrative that was missing from mainstream discussions about the island and its residents. More than anything, I recognized the danger of entering a classroom with an assumption or bias rooted in a perspective offered by U.S. media, which typically characterize nonwhite or developing countries in ways that reinforce the status quo.
In one of the first classes, I posed several questions, which required the students to juxtapose the rhetoric about Puerto Rico with their lived reality. In response, I asked each student to tell me about the “other” Puerto Rico, the side people rarely discover. The perspectives were so rich, insightful and heartfelt. Students talked about the make up and aesthetic of their community. There was an acknowledgement community meant many things to many people. Therefore, community can represent place (neighborhoods or geographic boundaries), face (the relationships between individuals and social support systems) or space (built spaces for living, working or political organizing).
For one student, community existed in her apartment building, whereby her neighbors were always in the open spaces. She would engage with them almost daily and if no one saw her for a few days, someone would surely stop by to check in on her. Another student described a community dispossessed by a mayor’s revitalization efforts. As a result, homes were seized, families were dispossessed and whole communities were impacted by the chaos. However, my student served as a tutor for the neighborhood kids, thus trying to retain some sort of normalcy in their lives. While the dominant narrative argues the ideal community consists of a single-family home, with a white picket fence, two-and-a-half kids and a dog, I realized the communities described may not have been the aesthetic norm, but the people in them were navigating the paradoxes of life: happiness and struggle, hope and despair. The stories shared underscored the resilience of the people trying to not just survive, but also thrive under the colonial rule of the United States government.
To be clear, the United States has governing influence over Puerto Rico, which is one of 16 U.S. territories. The island is bound to the regulations of U.S. Congress, does not have full protection under the Constitution, nor do residents have voting representation in Congress, and they cannot participate in federal elections. Additionally, the U.S. dictates a territory’s structure of government, laws and ultimately way of life. This context is important to understand the reality on the ground, specifically related to taxation, unemployment and poverty. Therefore, while people may not like the perspectives shared by my students or their interpretation of what it means to be under colonial rule, their lived experiences are rooted in truth. These are facts! Their stories are counternarratives used to offer context to the structural deficiencies created as a result of the U.S. government.
On the other end of the spectrum, U.S. society has been inundated with the emergence of a dominant discourse from the White House that argues for “alternative facts.” Alternative facts are down right untruths. Language, discourse and semantics are important. With each passing day, the injection of alternative facts into the daily discourse of politics and policy is both scary and damaging because it normalizes a rhetoric not based in truth. Counternarratives are different than alternative facts about inauguration attendance numbers or the Muslim “ban” that is not a “ban.”
Counternarratives empower communities of color by bringing awareness to issues the dominant discourse purposefully ignores. Alternative facts seek to maintain the status quo or better yet, validate false narratives. Counternarratives recognize history, context and experience as relevant. Alternative facts deny all of those things. Counternarratives uncover truth. Alternative facts undermine the credibility of the entire democratic system. Which narrative do you value?
Author: Brandi Blessett is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research broadly focuses on issues of social justice. Her areas of study include: cultural competency, social equity, administrative responsibility, and institutional racism. She can be reached at [email protected].