Last weekend I went to a forum about racism in my community.
The following post is a reflection drawn from my particular and local situation. Many of the characters in this story are people I know personally. But this is also about a broad phenomenon: people with power ‘consulting’ those who will be influenced by the actions of the powerful.
Early in the forum, local anti-racism advocate Forrest Bivens confronted the mayor, Matt Brown, on his track record of responding to racism. Much of the frustration with Mayor Brown goes back to his outright refusal to advocate for the suspension of police street checks (‘carding’) last year. (The Province of Ontario is currently moving to essentially ban the practice.) Given this backstory, Brown’s declaration that he had come to the forum to ‘listen and learn’ met predictable suspicion and frustration: ‘Im sick tired of Londoners coming to “listen learn”. We’ve BEEN talking. You listened and you don’t seem to learn,’ tweeted Rowa Mohamed.
Near the end of the day, the City Manager, Art Zuidema — City Hall’s top bureaucrat — stood up to address the room. He noted that addressing issues of racial diversity and inclusion is now embedded in the city’s strategic agenda moving ahead, as ratified by the recent adoption of a new Official Plan by City Council. He asked citizens to work with the city and to volunteer as collaborative partners ‘in the process’ of creating change.
Twitter lit up.
For Zuidema’s part, responding to any issue requires the development of a strategic framework. When he sits down at his desk every morning, the only ‘toolkit’ he has at his disposal is the analysis and reform of policies and procedures. From Zuidema’s perspective, inviting the community to provide input is the most appropriate mechanism imaginable. Let’s be honest: given his position, it is probably the only mechanism he can imagine. In this respect, I’m sympathetic to his intent. But as far the community is concerned, another invitation to be a part of another consultation process on another strategic plan does not only sound irrelevant and redundant, it sounds downright patronising. It smacks of a blatant disrespect for all of the input already ‘submitted’ and all of the concerns already voiced.
Shortly after Zuidema’s comment, Louise Pitre, executive director of Family Services Thames Valley, stood to speak. She said that she is learning that equity is not so much the result of strategic planning, but of intentionally relinquishing power. The only way to actively address systemic racial inequality is to re-centre the balance of decision-making, which means, as a leader, knowing when it is time to simply get out of the way.
For me, this highlights, yet again, one of the fundamental issues with consultation models: not only do bureaucracies often assume at the outset to know ‘the answers’, but they even more dangerously assume they are asking the right questions. In this forum, the ‘right question’ was not, ‘Will you commit to the process of helping City Hall fix racism?’ To think this is an appropriate question is to effectively demonstrate that you were not even listening the last time you invited people ‘to be heard’. It is, instead, perceived as a reiteration of the futility of the previous charade. (How many ‘consultations’ would you agree to attend if you perceived that past consultations had led to no sizeable change?)
‘Racialized communities already shoulder disproportionate burden of process,’ Susan tweeted. Advocates of marginalized communities, who must invest inordinate energy to interrupt the attention of officials, are usually none too impressed when said officials finally agree to dialogue by leveraging the occasion to publicize their ‘inclusivity’ towards the group and their ‘sensitivity’ to the issues. Trust is a limited resource: squandering it beyond a certain threshold is devastatingly alienating.
After the event, Forrest Bivens posted on Facebook: ‘Art, go read MLK’s “letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963”.’ My name is not Art, but I took the post as a cue to reread Martin Luther’s letter — seminal open correspondence addressed to eight white clergymen who had ridiculed the civil rights protests:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]”, 16 April 1963)
Exclusionary elitism lurks behind the rhetoric of inclusion. Who has the power to set the terms of this engagement? — this is the unasked question that almost all engagement stratagems complacently take for granted.
Inclusiveness is only a preoccupation for those with the power to consider themselves includers or excluders.
We can’t talk about ‘creating’ and ‘building’ an inclusive city without talking about who possesses the power to do the creating and building.