Search for Social Equity Requires Authentic Engagement

On the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I reflected on how one man with such faith, courage, communication skills, and steadfast focus on equity for all made such a difference in our country and the world—and not just during his life, but for generations.

We must not lose sight of the fact that in America today, while we have made many gains, there is inequity, racism, and bigotry, and each of us remain on our own personal journey to eradicate these things in our own hearts and in those of our neighbors.

This became very clear to me years ago when I was administrator for the Wisconsin Division of Children and Family Services, with responsibility for child welfare reform efforts in Milwaukee County. I saw firsthand how public policies and organizational policies at the city, county, state, and federal levels—often established with good intentions—made it very difficult for underserved and segregated populations to experience success in their lives to the degree that they could believe there was a future they could influence.

I am not referring to only social service policy, but all policies that influence a person’s daily life and the community where they live. True equity, as envisioned by Dr. King, is kept from being realized for all people can be explained by a sampling of the “little” things: the number of liquor licenses allowed in neighborhoods, access to quality schools, access to health care, access to nutritious and affordable food, access to efficient transportation, the presence of parks, safe neighborhoods, and arrest and incarceration policies.

This truth has been reinforced time and time again, and it is one of the reasons why the Alliance for Children and Families is doubling its efforts on the development of capacities and effective mobilization for influence of our vast national member network.

The Alliance supports the important work of advancing equity through our launch of the national Center on Engagement and Neighborhood Building. We are using a more than 100-year-old road map created by our wonderful settlement houses and neighborhood centers. They knew one thing then, and today continue to model it. That is the one thing that I now believe is more important than ever: authentic engagement!

Sterling Speirn of the Kellogg Foundation said it so well when he described that for change to be durable, the fuel is internal and organic and change comes from the inside out. Whether for the individual, the family, the neighborhood, or the country, we will not realize a reduction in the number of children that live in poverty, increase the number of people living safe and healthy lives, or witness more people on pathways for educational and employment success until we look at our actions through the lens of equity and access.

The Alliance is honored that the former United Neighborhood Centers of America joined its network on January 1. Together, we can elevate the place and presence of the "settlement house way" and values throughout our field and sector.

Now, I believe in hard work and self-determination. But I don't know a single person, including me, who has experienced success and overcome difficulties without the help of family, friends, neighbors, and the numerous systems our lives intersect with on a daily basis. A person’s singular efforts and our country’s fixation on individualism alone will not be enough to provide people pathways out of what must feel like a 500-pound weight on their shoulders. We need to do more to truly listen, understand, respect, and engage all people across age-group, income, race, sexual orientation, and religious affiliations in our public and organizational policy development so we can make sure policies at all levels reflect so many of Dr. King’s messages: equity for all.

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