Invest Black – when government is us

Charlie Walker, a lifelong advocate for Black contractors and other entrepreneurs, inspired the crowd on July 24, when the steps of City Hall came to life with a masked and physically distanced rally urging San Franciscans to “invest Black” by passing Props 16 and 17 in November. Prop 16 will overturn Prop 209, passed in 1995, that ended affirmative action and led to the lockout of Black contractors and workers from working construction for the past 24 long years. Many of the parolees who will be allowed to vote under Prop 17 have construction skills they can use to support their families again. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

by Lin Robertson

Perhaps the biggest takeaway about Prop 16 and Prop 17 during the rally held in front of San Francisco’s City Hall on Friday, July 24, is that we are taking ownership of our fate and demanding systemic change. While Prop 16 calls for Afro and Latino Americans to have a fair shot at a level playing field that gives us good jobs and profitable contracts especially in the public sector, Prop 17 demands that if you’ve already paid your dues in the criminal justice system, you should also have a voice on election day. 

Actually, these issues are not new. As a solution, John M. Kamensky suggested as far back as 18 years ago that real dialog between those running the system and those impacted by it should realize that “dialog and participation networks evolved when various members of society recognized that their goals could not be achieved independently.” He further suggests that there should be no hierarchy, with government on top and us begging for scraps below. Instead, no one is in charge. 

Geoffrea Morris, granddaughter of Charlie Walker, speaks at the July 24 rally she co-hosted with Supervisor Matt Haney. She represents the third generation of Blacks in San Francisco who were initially recruited from Texas and Louisiana to come work at the Hunters Point Shipyard. That first generation saved their wages, bought homes and businesses and became a major political force in the city. Now most have been pushed out by San Francisco’s virulent anti-Black racism plus police terror and the foreclosure crisis. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

He describes collaboration between government and community to solve problems in which:

  • Trust is built between co-equal partners.
  • Everyone becomes part of the solution. Even different leadership styles work together to achieve common goals.
  • Performance targets are developed jointly.
  • Communication remains ongoing.
  • Public-private team members answer to each other to be accountable and transparent.

If both Prop 16 and Prop 17 were to get the majority of YES votes, what happens next? How will we make sure that our votes aren’t wasted on yet another promise with no teeth? 

Granddaughter of San Francisco’s infamous Charlie Walker, Geoffrea Morris, said it best last Friday during the rally that she organized. Loud and clear, her voice rained these words: “Black Lives Matter is a statement. Invest Black is action.” 

She elaborated that the significance of reversing Prop 209, which also led to further gentrification in San Francisco, was that for too long our vote was being taken for granted over and over again, ultimately producing not enough good paying jobs or sustainable business opportunities for us to thrive. She asked the crucial question: What good is it that we are only appreciated when it is time to vote, or when politicians only desire just another photo op, but not when it’s time to acknowledge that we deserve a shot to the top as well? 

It’s actually not so much because of the divide and conquer methods that slave masters used to control our bodies and our minds as a culture for centuries. Instead, . . .

Yes, of course there are a few of us who get to where we all aspire. But alas, not enough of us who are enabled to climb that mountain actually remember to reach back to help the rest of our community get to where we all want to go. 

It’s actually not so much because of the divide and conquer methods that slave masters used to control our bodies and our minds as a culture for centuries. Instead, it is because of ambition to be “legitimate” or as “white” as possible ourselves. 

That is a poison that does not necessarily breed permanent success. It teaches us to be selfish and often too greedy to realize that unless we all get equal opportunity to match our more than frequent vote at the ballot box, we will continue to lose throughout our community.

And don’t get me started about our brothers and sisters that keep going through that revolving door into the prison system that seems to have been meant just for us. Why bother try to succeed if you are not even allowed a voice after you’ve already graduated from parole to vote, or – even better – to have a say in what “government” believes is good for us. 

SF Supervisor Matt Haney, whose district includes the Tenderloin, hosted the rally with community advocate Geoffrea Morris, granddaughter of Charlie Walker. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

Often ex-convicts remain just that, with little hope to be able to free themselves from systemic racism or from homelessness if not in jail. Luckily, there are organizations like the CARE team, ABU and Us4Us that support those who need lifting up with some financial assistance from City Hall even if the amounts they give are often just piecemeal. 

“Listen to what we need.” Morris’ pleas remind us again that government is deaf, with an attitude that they know better than we do about what we need, is not working. For that matter, it is possible that it never did. Our history, from Emmett Till to George Floyd, suggests that bowing our heads in prayer cannot mean especially today that we should not create “good trouble” that makes positive changes throughout this society. Please remember what John Lewis just reminded us about – to “Never Give Up” even when he knew that his time to go home was near. 

One of our own elders, Charlie Walker, also spoke truth to power on Friday when he said, “They don’t want us to survive like they survive.” He pointed out that if you don’t put people in their own businesses that can create real wealth, you are asking for trouble. 

“When are they going to give us a fair opportunity to also have money?” Damien Posey, aka Uncle Damien, with Us4Us challenged us further with the notion that to do what Walker suggested, “we need to change the system that makes us vulnerable ourselves.” 

Damien Posey, aka Uncle Damien, with Us4Us addresses the crowd. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

Roy Tidwell from the CARE team suggested that while it was refreshing to see the rally happen last Friday, he is skeptical about whether rallies alone can make a real difference. He suggests that in the end so far “nothing really happens.” 

He does, however, appreciate that the City of San Francisco is making some effort to help nonprofits and community based organizations whose mission it is to provide support for people who are losing their jobs and housing, to help the homeless, or to facilitate job readiness and job creation for constituents who can be found throughout the Tenderloin, Bayview and similar local neighborhoods. 

Journalist Lin Robertson talks with the CARE team at the rally. CARE’s Roy Tidwell warns that as long as we don’t have equal say in how to manifest what we all hope for – an equal shot at success – “Black lives” will continue to matter not so much. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

And while Tidwell believes that the UC Hastings law school’s lawsuit [to clear 300 tents from the Tenderloin] also motivated our civic leaders to help “the little people,” especially the homeless who are more at risk because of COVID 19, he warns that as long as we don’t have equal say in how to manifest what we all hope for – an equal shot at success – “Black lives” will continue to matter not so much.

Perhaps today there is a need again for what Cheryl King and Camilla Stivers wrote about in their 1998 publication “Government Is Us.” The title suggests community empowerment, but it seems that what we’ve learned since then is that we need to “take it.” 

They suggest that those in government need to “inform citizens, deliberate with citizens, learn from citizens’ experience, and put in place administrative practices and processes that build, or rebuild, public trust and a sense of connection with government.” And despite our continued discomfort with the police throughout the USA today, there are some positive indicators that “active citizens,” like those who spoke up to promote Prop 16 and Prop 17 last Friday in front of City Hall, can develop useful partnerships with civic leaders in San Francisco to do just that. 

We also agree with Stivers and King’s analogy that citizens, including those who have suffered far too long because of systemic racism, should not have to wait for government to give us permission to begin the dialog about how they can best serve us. The call to “Invest Black” is not just a cry for good jobs for some and hand-me-downs for most. 

It is an invitation to foster and promote community leadership, to facilitate training for continuous improvement within the government that is charged with serving their public, as well as among our Black and Brown people who deserve equal opportunities to also grow within California’s economy. Overall, they should listen to everyone who continues to be impacted by policies that work for – but also far too often against – us.

Lin Robertson

We congratulate the organizers of last Friday’s rally. It was like coming to church to hear the truth, even from some that remained careful, or politically correct. (You know who you are.) 

So while we strive to reach for that olive branch that often seems to be there only to tease, let’s find a way not just to vote our values into power but also to shape the outcomes that result with mandates rather than “good faith” promises from those on top that too often have lost sight of us. 

Let’s not assume that they will do the right thing once the ballot measures pass this November. We, you and me, should help shape policies that impact us. After all, we are government, and those who work in public service should be called to remember that.

Resources

John M. Kamensky wrote “Getting Results When No One Is in Charge,” which was published by ASPA Online Columns in 2002; excerpts can be read at https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-89397575/getting-results-when-no-one-is-in-charge-new-series.

Cheryl S. King, Camila Stivers and collaborators wrote “Government is Us – Public Administration in an Anti-Government Era,” which was published by Sage Publications in 1998.

Lin Robertson began her career by launching the Aruba Foreign Investment Agency in her native Aruba, a Caribbean island nation off the coast of Venezuela. Coming to California in 1998, she worked with the San Jose Office of Equality Assurance and in 2005 founded The Labor Compliance Managers, where she is managing director. She is also senior producer for International Media TV. Lin can be reached at lin.tlcm@gmail.com.