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Innovating Democracy for an Equitable America

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Panelists (left to right): E.J. Dionne, Washington Post columnist and frequent commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered;” DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement; Tom Hall, of WYPR-FM’s “Maryland Morning (moderator);” and Kimberly R. Moffitt, PhD., Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The lecture took place November 15 at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Photo Credit: University of Maryland, Baltimore.

In America, democracy is a government of, by, and for the people— or is it?

In just a week since Trump’s election, racially charged incidents were reported at schools and universities ignited by President-elect Donald Trump’s win.  Youth and young adults across the nation took to the streets in protest, including Baltimore, San Diego, Oakland, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and Washington DC.

Many of those protesters were not voting-age adults— they were teenagers.  They are Generation Z, that tenacious group of young people born from the mid-1990s to now, comprising 60 million Americans, outpacing even millennials.  Generation Z grew up in an era of high-speed Internet, healthy eating, physical fitness and the first Black president. They are Obama’s legacy and his call to action.  And if America thought they were going to contain their outrage at the dawn of a new era, we were wrong— and so was the electorate.

By the 2018 midterm elections, older Generation Z members will join millennial voters to cast another vote.  More than ever, it is now up to us to step up and educate the young electorate about the legislative process.  Between now and 2018, young social workers across the social work education and practice continuum have an opportunity to seize this moment and act.  Congress decides which laws will be passed and which will not, thereby placing ourselves and our clients at risk.

A few days ago, Dean Richard Barth and president of the American Academy for Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW), welcomed E.J. Dionne Jr., DeRay McKesson, and Dr. Kimberly R. Moffitt to the University of Maryland School of Social Work as part of the Daniel Thursz Lecture Series on Social Justice. For over an hour, students and alumni were offered some basic lessons in how to organize new critical masses on a scale America has never seen before.

According to DeRay McKesson, “[this nation] needs to learn how to calibrate to the moment correctly and to organize youth to know what power looks like.” He adds that, “power can shift by midterm,” —a critical time when Generation Z members can cast a ballot for the first time.

In response to DeRay’s call to action,  I could not help but think of the last two Social Work Student Advocacy Days on Capitol Hill where BSW, MSW, and doctoral students  came together to make both events a success.  Over 200 students in 2015 and close to 400 students from throughout the country travelled far and wide to participate in the legislative process and meet their local representatives, engaging in direct lobbying efforts to influence specific legislation supported by the profession. However, one of the lessons I learned from those experiences was that legislative change does not happen once a year— it requires continual action, even if it takes one victory at a time.

Because legislative change is an ongoing process, YSocialWork has made a new commitment to train the next generation in policy entrepreneurship and innovation.  Its new initiative,  Innovate Democracy for an Equitable America (IDEA), which is inspired by the Grand Challenges for Social Work Initiative, seeks to innovate the current state of democracy by supporting new ideas, working closely with local, state, and federal leaders, and supporting next-generation legislative proposals.

Call to Action:  IDEA

IDEA is a policy scrimmage and bootcamp. As ambitious and groundbreaking as it sounds, IDEA offers a unique blend of innovation, design thinking, and agile project management using the Scrum methodology as a vehicle for effective policy practice in the twenty-first century. These core features are interwoven with the policymaking process, business plan competition frameworks, and social issues to usher in a critical turning point in U.S. history.  The next generation needs to translate innovative policy ideas into action.

A conference aimed at changing democracy through the policymaking process would  be the first of its kind to train future generations as policy entrepreneurs.  These individuals work outside the formal governmental system to introduce, translate, and implement innovative ideas into public sector practice, often in the midst of social and economic downturn.

This concept which was used by John W. Kingdon (1984) is not new.  However, creating a platform for millennials and the rising electorate, from Democrats to Republicans, progressives to conservatives, to answer the challenges facing American citizens wanting to innovate local and state policies, is.

In a democracy, all citizens have the right and opportunity to participate in this new age of policy innovation focused on human dignity and the value of each individual.   If we want Generation Z to take part in that process, they too deserve a seat at the table.

Unfortunately, it appears America will continue to see unrest in our nation’s most volatile areas surrounding police brutality, homelessness, economic inequality, educational disparities, mental health crisis, gun violence, or a series of other social issues one can choose from. As DeRay McKesson concluded at UMSSW,  “These are the challenges that lie ahead of us,” so perhaps IDEA can bring the Grand Challenges for Social Work to life not just in our community, but for those who we seek to protect.

If you are waiting for the perfect time to seize the opportunity to make a difference and join YSocialWork efforts, the time is NOW. YSocialWork is currently looking for young leaders and organizations to help us execute IDEA on Capitol Hill and across the United States. For more information, contact us here.

Shauntia White, MS is a social work student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, located in the heart of Baltimore City. She holds a master’s degree in human development and family science from Oklahoma State University. She is the Founder and President of YSocialWork, an independent 501(c)3 focused on applying social work values to political systems by engaging social work students in young professionals in leadership development, advocacy, and innovation. She is former recipient of the Hillman Entrepreneurs Program at the Prince George’s Community College and University of Maryland, the Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Scholars Program at Oklahoma State University, and the Entrepreneurship and Empowerment Program in South Africa. She is an alumna of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, and serves as a student representative for the Greater Washington Society for Clinical Social Work.

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