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We’ve Heard the Voices, Should Somebody Be Listening?

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

By Charles Wallace
March 28, 2017

A degenerative disarray of politics has devolved into all facets of government and it’s rampant throughout our communities. Quite possibly, the majority of this degeneration began at local levels of government, in the smallest of communities where an inattentive, unwavering status quo has continued to ravage, in an expanse of empty promises, leading to a mistrust in elected officials, political infighting and perceived inept governance for decades. As communities began to decay due to a myriad of politically unattended economic symptoms, they have increasingly become infected socially. With leadership unwilling to listen or tend to the symptoms of its own citizenry, their symptoms exacerbate each day, week, month and year into confusion, then anger, leading to blame and fear.

As Anand Giridharadas stated in his June 2016 TED Talk, A letter to all who have lost in this era:

“You used to be able to count on work, and now you couldn’t. You used to be able to nourish your children, and guarantee that they would climb a little bit further in life than you had, and now you couldn’t. You used to be made to feel dignity in your work, and now you didn’t. It used to be normal for people like you to own a home, and now it wasn’t.”

Remembering the past, it seems government was our ever present safety net. It assured we had decent, respectable employment opportunities, reliable schools, affordable colleges and universities to educate our children and ourselves. Safe neighborhoods and affordable homes were the norm. Friends, neighbors and families gathered, shared and ensured the welfare of each other. But somehow, somewhere in time, it all changed.

listening

We believed we solved the Civil Rights issues in the 60s with the stroke of a pen, without realizing it did little to solve the strife absorbed by people of color daily. The discussion about Women’s Rights has ebbed and flowed over the years, yet there is still no Equal Rights Amendment for women. The Americans with Disability Act is in place, still many communities cannot, will not address all aspects of the Act, due to real and perceived funding shortages. Even the threat of litigation isn’t powerful enough to initiate change in communities on the verge of bankruptcy. LGBTQ issues are still being challenged throughout the country as are healthcare, unemployment, social security and our very own constitutional rights. The cries of the affected have gotten louder and louder and somehow the voices aren’t heard or are being intentionally ignored.

Slowly and unquestionably a growing mistrust in government, our elected leaders, government programs, and now in each other, has spread to every corner of society. We have chosen sides, cast votes for change, any kind of change, hoping for something different to occur, even at our own personal sacrifice and detriment. A fissure has developed in middle ground, the conscious of America, which has always prevented one side of the argument from overtaking the other. Battle lines have been drawn in communities, in households, where you either side with us or become an adversary to face the consequences of your decisions.

Giridharadas stated in his June 2016 TED Talk:

“So here we are, in a scary but not inexplicable moment of demagoguery, fracture, xenophobia, resentment and fear. And I worry for us both if we continue down this road, me not listening, you feeling unheard, you shouting to get me to listen. I heard all of these things, but I didn’t listen. I looked but didn’t see. I read, didn’t understand. I paid attention only when you began to vote and shout, and when you’re voting and shouting, when the substance of it, began to threaten me.”

Can we, as public administrators, accomplish what is necessary to complete the responsibilities we have been tasked with or have we been relegated to the role of referee between the various warring factions? What must be done to create change and begin the civil discussions intended to assist all people? Is success conceivable in our current fractured state of society?

Giridharadas states:

“We face a problem of your and my relations. We chose ways of relating to each other that got us here. We can choose ways of relating that get us out. We can do this only if we first accept that we have neglected each other.”

Perhaps we, as public administrators, must assume the role of listener — actively hearing and attempting to understand the perplexing words and actions of a citizenry who feel neglected and that they have no other way to make things better. Current practices and solutions aren’t working. Maybe it’s time to listen.


Author: Chuck Wallace is the President of the Washington State Emergency Management Association (WSEMA) He has an MPA and speaks throughout the country on issues related to emergency management barriers and practice. His email is [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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