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More Than Rhetorical Value

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

By Brandi Blessett
January 18, 2020

Originally published in PA Times Magazine

Blessett was the 2019 recipient of ASPA’s Gloria Hobson Nordin Social Equity Award. This column is an adaptation of the remarks she delivered during the awards program.

I grew up in Detroit and had a big family, so I would travel to New York, Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina during summer vacations and school breaks. As a kid, I always wanted to know why black communities looked different from white ones. For some reason, I was very aware of my surroundings and the differences I noticed during my travels from one community to the next stayed with me.

I was too young to have experienced displacement as a result of urban renewal in the 1960s, but as I got older, I could tell that the changing dynamics of my neighborhood were dictated by the lack of infrastructure investment in my community. Deindustrialization decimated communities. Disproportionately, black families and their neighborhoods bore the brunt of social, economic and technological changes that arose from the information age.

By the time I left Detroit in 2006 to pursue my Ph.D., the early signs of gentrification were emerging. Honestly, I stumbled into public administration and realized that to make this discipline relevant for me, I wanted my research to focus on people who looked like me and lived in neighborhoods where I grew up. I needed to reconcile the rhetoric of public administration’s goals and values with the reality of its action in communities of color.

I soon realized that public administration is taught in a vacuum—devoid of history, race and politics—and decided that my contribution to the field would be to connect those dots through my research, teaching and praxis. It meant my research would need to delve into the ways that systemic racism and institutional oppression have been reinforced by administrative decisionmaking. History demonstrates that public administrators have done bad things, unethical things, illegal things to people and communities that have been “othered” in the United States. The redlining of low income communities, the Tuskegee experiment, the criminal justice system’s disparate treatment of black people, the detention of undocumented persons seeking asylum. These all are reflective of actions that have occurred, and continue to occur, at the hands of front line administrators through public institutions. When bad, unethical or illegal things take place, our institutions’ legitimacy is compromised, our constituents’ trust decreases and our pursuit of justice is denied. Collectively, these factors contribute to the divergent experiences of people who have been pushed to the margins: the “othered.”

The intersections where people’s existence cross paths have meaning and consequence. In the classroom, I make these connections with my students because they need the appropriate context to make sense of the world in which they will operate. As administrators, we must be willing to challenge our assumptions and suspend our judgment to better understand people and communities different from us. Students need skills to effectively engage in co-productive relationships, where residents feel comfortable enough to share their ideas and identify strategies that can and will improve their quality of life. In today’s political climate, we need public administration professionals who demonstrate cultural understanding, are committed to improving social and racial equity and value proactive engagement with all stakeholders.

As researchers, we must acknowledge that the context in which we exist will dictate the types of questions we ask. As educators, we have to discern the types and quality of the conversations we have in the classroom, or confront the realities of those whose perspectives are absent in our curriculum and ask why. As practitioners, we must recognize that our implicit bias impacts our decisionmaking process. The ability to own and modify our actions as it relates to that bias helps us become more responsive to the needs of the people we serve.

Within our realm of responsibility, it requires examining how bureaucratic structures lead to injustice. It demands that we do more than say “I’m just doing my job,” especially when children are separated from their parents at our country’s border or when a water system changes and poisons a city. We must be strong in our convictions to pursue justice and equity at all costs. We have to be willing to ask these questions:

To what extent are our organizations equitable, through their policies, practices, compensation, expectations and behaviors?

More important: When we find the answer, are we willing to do the work necessary to create systems that move toward the ideals on which this country was founded: democracy, justice and fairness for all, not just some?

Working in a professional discipline, public administrators are on the front lines of this work. I believe we have great capacity to bring about immediate change in our communities and society at large. Social equity cannot only be a rhetorical value of public administration. Moving forward, it must be our profession’s obligation!


Brandi Blessett is associate professor and director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on administrative responsibility, disenfranchisement and social equity. Much of Blessett’s work acknowledges the disproportionate effects of criminal justice and legal systems on communities of color. She can be reached 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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