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What’s Going On…

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

By Dwight Vick
May 26, 2020

When things are quiet, I sew masks for my family and friends.

Sometimes, I sew in silence. Sometimes, I listen to soft rock music. Marvin Gaye’s song, “What’s Going On” is one of my favorites. Other times, I turn on my television and listen to the news at a low volume. The silence and rhythm of guiding the needle through the cloth and batting provides me with an opportunity to reflect on the past, examine current events and reflect upon our profession and future.

I heard about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breona Taylor in Kentucky, as I quilted these handmade masks. Immediately my mind went back to tales I heard as a child about the Emmett Till case and political corruption that permeated Tallahatchie County, Mississippi like honeysuckle on the vine.

The stories were told by Travis Thomas. He served on the Emmett Till jury. He claimed to be the last man chosen and the last one to vote to let Emmett’s murders, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, be set free for a crime the prosecution could not prove beyond a shadow of doubt the accused men committed. Thomas thought Emmett should have been whipped; Teenage boys do not wolf whistle at grown women, particularly black teenage boys at white women in 1955 rural Mississippi. Thomas considered himself as a defender of womanhood, his Confederate grandfather’s legacy, his way of life.

One year later, Milam and Bryant confessed to killing Emmett and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.

As time passed, Thomas was troubled by the vote. Publicly, he defended the jury’s decision. Privately, among friends and family, Thomas discussed his misgivings in a way that only working-class white men of his generation could—at a dinner table piled high with salmon croquettes and hot biscuits or fried chicken and mashed potatoes and ever present, ever flowing sweet tea. But what troubled Thomas the most was not a murder of a black teenage boy who was not only a polio survivor but also from Chicago. Corrupt local politicians appealed to his engrained sense of protecting women, a romanticized but unrealistic Southern culture, and the war wounds that his grandfather received in the, “Wo-wa of Nor-thern Aggression,” in defense of his, “Great State of Tallahatchie.” These politicians, who Thomas also accused of breaking into the Watergate Hotel that led to Nixon’s resignation, used his sense of duty to defend their economic and social status that they denied to him and those like him.

Civil Rights legislation passed over the last 70 years—legislation strongly supported by members of our profession provided equality based upon race, gender and sexual orientation, religion, union membership and age, to name a few factors. Just because there is equality, it seems as if we remain unequal.

America’s children who are black, brown or poor regardless of color are more likely to attend underfunded schools. They are more likely to be involved with child welfare agencies and the judicial system even though addiction, domestic violence and child abuse cross all racial, social and cultural boundaries. Healthcare in predominately racial or poor communities, in our hospitals and prisons, remains elusive. Muslims tend to be disenfranchised by society and seen as religious radicals while many Christian Protestants open their churches for face-to-face sermons with little response from public health or law enforcement agencies. The massive growth in unemployment crosses all ages but hits the poor, the older employee, black and brown communities and Native American tribes the hardest and forces many into bread lines that never thought they would ask for a Snack Pak or food pantry box to feed their families. Persons of Asian descent are accused, even attacked, for spreading the virus throughout our nation even though they are American citizens. Zoom meetings are bombarded by hackers to spout hate, disrupting the best way we can communicate with each other while we isolate.

Yet, COVID-19 has exposed the best of us. Teachers instruct children online. Civil servants attempt to distance citizens in an effort to protect all of us. Medical personnel and first responders work hours to meet our needs in this crisis. Public health officials work to provide us with factual information about the virus as is relevant to us in our communities. The pandemic has shown us, one more time, that public servants, we bureaucrats, remain dedicated to serving our community, our state and our nation. ASPA leads that charge through its Section on Democracy and Social Justice by exploring administrative and political alternatives at all levels of government and promoting constructive social change through teaching, research, practice, conferences and publications. Long before COVID-19, this section promoted the best of us and what we can achieve.

What more can we do as individuals, and in our profession? We can advocate for continued efforts for civics education in an effort to combat long-held “isms” and political corruption, for equity and not just equality and continue our dedication to service.

We are too late for Ahmaud and Breonna to ask, “What’s going on?” for them but there is no better time to advocate for all of us.

I will do that, at home, well into the night, sewing masks.


Author: Dwight Vick, Ph.D. is a 28-year-long ASPA member.  An adjunct professor, he owns D.A.V.E – Dwight A. Vick Enterprises, a consulting and grant writing business.

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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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