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Maintaining Our Resolve

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
July 5, 2020

Like many people, I have taken the opportunity to watch Just Mercy and reflect on the work that needs to be done to combat disparities and racial injustice. The movie and the lessons offered in it reminded me why I went into this field in the first place: if you want peace, work for justice. As public administrators it is our duty to work toward making our society more equitable and just. It can be difficult to remain committed to our work sometimes, especially when the challenges we face are increasingly tense or complex. As recent events have shown, the problem of violence remains prevalent in our communities and has been the focus of much media coverage these past few weeks; particularly police violence against people of color. It is difficult to understand why this is happening without first understanding our own history and the roots of injustice.

When we are at work and even at home, it is important to remember that we have an opportunity to combat injustice on many levels. Educating ourselves first can prepare us to have conversations with our colleagues, staff, family and friends. I would encourage you to read, watch, listen and speak about injustice and inequality as often as you can, and challenge yourself so that you can challenge others. Late last year I had the opportunity to teach a class on Poverty in America and I worked to create a safe place with my students so we could explore together inequality, discrimination, structural racism, economic disparity and bias. I attempted to engage my students in having these conversations so they would not be afraid to have them when out in the world, as they are our future.

To lead a community we must align ourselves with the values held by those we serve and acknowledge the historical traumas that our constituents may have undergone in the development of that community. Our nation was built by indentured servants and slaves who for generations did not have the same rights as those who employed or owned them, and many generations later descendants are still living with the past horrors experienced. It is important to acknowledge this when working with disadvantaged populations, especially those who’ve experienced discrimination. As public administrators it is our responsibility to design and implement government policies that appropriately serve our communities and creates a more just society. If we do not push for better outcomes through legislation we are not doing our job of leading the charge for change.

One thing I have learned throughout this pandemic is that we have access to a unique platform to spread knowledge to a captive audience. The key is to spread a message that is well researched and communicated in such a way that can be understood by all communities. We must maintain our resolve to end violence and build an equitable and just society before its too late. We are in an election year, the outcome of which will impact how our communities fare moving forward. If we take the time to build a strong foundation within our communities, one that is focused on respect and not fear, then we could begin to rebuild trust with those we serve. Trust is really at the foundation of many conversations happening on a national level. Unfortunately it has been lost through generations of mistreatment.

So how do we move forward? How do we encourage closed-off communities from challenging each other to make sound decisions and treat others with the respect they deserve? We must learn how to build empathy, reduce inequality and encourage crucial conversations between all of us. We must look in the mirror and recognize the bias we all have inside of us and educate ourselves on the history this nation was built on. We must understand how this history has perpetuated violence and discrimination toward entire populations of people. If we cannot recognize the importance of this happening then we have failed the people we have worked so hard to serve. I would encourage us all to remember the reasons we decided to become public administrators and allow this to reinvigorate our purpose as public officials. We are public servants with the same mission to serve the public through our work each day, no matter the employer or community, and that holds value in building a better world.


Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and recent graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Public Administration program in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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