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From Public Servant to Public Activist: A Call for Courageous Systems Transformation

In the words of Sarah Schulman,

"The way to challenge the status quo is by saying no to it."

As a scholar committed to justice and equity, I must confess that patience has never been my strong suit. Instead, I have come to cultivate an impatience that I consider to be a courageous force for change. The notion of patience, as it is commonly understood, can often function as a tool of oppression, keeping us in a state of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. What we need now more than ever is not patience, but the kind of courage that refuses to accept the world as it is and insists on creating a better one. A more productive approach to system transformation is not to impede progress by advocating for patience, but rather to recognize that we need to meet people where they are in order to move forward.

Recently, I had the privilege of meeting some truly remarkable women whose perseverance in the face of systemic oppression has inspired me greatly. These women have shown a patience that I could scarcely imagine, working tirelessly for years to bring about incremental change and greater equity in our institutions. I am humbled by their determination and the sacrifices they have made to transform our world.

Yet, we must acknowledge that the time for patience has passed. We cannot continue to wait for bureaucratic systems to take notice of our demands for change. We must speak up, demand action, and co-create new solutions that challenge the very foundations of the status quo. The kind of courage we need demands that we take risks, embrace the possibility of making mistakes, and reject the pressures of respectability politics.

True courage also demands that we collaborate with those who are not at the top, who have been marginalized and silenced by the very systems we seek to transform. As Bell Hooks has noted, building a community that resists domination requires a constant vigilance and a deep commitment to uprooting the socialization that reinforces oppressive structures. We must recognize that wisdom and knowledge come from diverse sources, and that it is only by working together that we can create the kind of world we want to live in.

As a public servant, I don't believe that my role is limited to upholding existing systems and structures. Rather than embracing the negative racial connotations that come with the label of "public servant," I choose to identify as a "public activist." This means that I am committed to actively making changes in our systems to support equitable outcomes. Equitable outcomes require a proactive and intentional approach to effecting change. It involves thinking outside the box and questioning the status quo. I recognize that our current systems and structures can be exclusionary and biased, and I am committed to transforming them to create more inclusive and just systems.

In order to create change, it is important to acknowledge my own agency and power. As a public activist, I understand that my role is not passive or complacent. I am committed to being engaged in this work, actively seeking out opportunities to create positive change. At the core of this approach is a commitment to centering marginalized voices and experiences. This means prioritizing equitable outcomes over maintaining the status quo, and being willing to challenge existing power structures. I believe that by identifying as a public activist, I am taking an important step towards creating a more just and equitable society.

Those who work within systems must become activists if they truly wish to bring about meaningful change. It is not enough to simply go through the motions of a job or role and hope that progress will naturally occur. As the saying goes, "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Becoming an activist means taking a proactive stance in promoting and advocating for change. It means not being content with the status quo, but rather pushing for progress and challenging the systems and structures that perpetuate oppression and inequality. It means recognizing the ways in which these systems operate and using one's position and influence to actively resist and subvert them.

Taking a proactive stance is essential to meeting people where they are and creating a society that is more equitable. This involves actively seeking to understand the experiences and perspectives of diverse individuals and communities, especially those who have been marginalized and oppressed by existing systems. Prioritizing their voices and advocating for their needs is key to dismantling the structures that sustain inequality. By doing so, we can work towards creating a society that values and uplifts everyone, regardless of their background or circumstance.

In Sarah Schulman's book Conflict Is Not Abuse, she emphasizes the importance of recognizing and addressing power dynamics in interpersonal and systemic conflicts. In the context of systemic transformation, meeting people where they are at means understanding the ways in which individuals and groups experience and interact with systems of power and oppression. It means acknowledging the harm caused by these power imbalances and working to dismantle them. This involves advocating for policies and practices that address the specific needs of marginalized communities, including access to language, culturally responsive care, and other forms of support.

An awareness-based systems change approach recognizes that meeting people where they are at entails more than just acknowledging their challenges and removing barriers. It involves actively seeking out and elevating the voices of those who have been historically marginalized and excluded from decision-making processes. This means creating inclusive spaces for meaningful participation and valuing diverse perspectives and knowledge. By doing so, we can challenge and transform dominant narratives and power structures that reinforce systemic oppression.

Otto Scharmer is a senior lecturer at MIT, a co-founder of the Presencing Institute, and author of the book "Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges." He is a thought leader in the field of systems thinking and transformative change, and his work focuses on helping individuals and organizations develop the capacity to create positive and sustainable social and economic systems.

According to Otto Scharmer, meeting people where they are at involves not only empathy, listening, and learning, but also a willingness to engage in deep introspection and self-reflection. This requires acknowledging the limitations of our own perspectives and biases, and actively working to expand our understanding and awareness. By cultivating this kind of awareness-based system change, we can create the conditions for more meaningful and transformative dialogue, and develop the capacity to truly understand the needs and experiences of those who have been historically marginalized and oppressed.

In her book "Conflict is not Abuse," Sarah Schulman writes,

"The culture of innocence around the act of reporting is an obstacle to social justice. It disempowers those who are silenced and allows perpetrators to harm repeatedly. We must replace the norm of protecting one's own power with a culture of mutual aid."

This quote highlights the importance of speaking out against harmful behavior and challenging the status quo, even if it means going against those in positions of power. It emphasizes the need for a cultural shift towards prioritizing accountability and mutual aid, rather than protecting individual power and privilege.

This can be a difficult and uncomfortable process, as it often involves speaking out against colleagues, superiors, and even the very institutions one is a part of. However, it is also a necessary step towards creating a more just and equitable world. It requires a willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for the greater good, even if it means facing criticism or consequences. Ultimately, those who work within systems have a unique and important perspective on how they operate and the potential for change. By becoming activists, they can use this perspective to effect real and lasting progress, both within their institutions and beyond.

To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination. - Bell Hooks

We need courage, collaboration, and a commitment to meeting people where they are at to transform our systems and create a just world. As activists, we challenge the status quo, resist oppressive structures, and advocate for marginalized voices. We prioritize accountability and mutual aid over individual power and privilege, even if it means speaking out against colleagues and institutions. To create the world we want, we must reject complacency and embrace courage. With a willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for the greater good, those who work within systems have a unique and important perspective that can be used to effect real and lasting progress. Let us embrace this courage and work together to create the world we want to live in.

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