By Scott Downes
“This is the perfect day for it,” said a man bundled up in a long, thick coat, without any hint of sarcasm.
Snow fell diagonally, blanketing City Park in Denver and the early arrivals to the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Marade (a combined march and parade). The rising left arm of the statue of the fallen civil rights icon was shrouded in white. The air was cold and wet, and made for a still and somber morning.
The gathering crowd brought warmth and laughter, though. Soon enough, there was music and dancing and chanting.
People young and old and in between, black and brown and white, students and elders, unionists and the business-attired, dignitaries and elected officials—all there to celebrate not just the dream of Dr. King, but the idea of activism and the importance of showing up.
One of the speakers evoked the memory of Dr. King and more recent remarks by former President Obama in saying that “we” is the most important word in our democracy.
As the Marade made its way west on the 2.1-mile walk down Colfax Avenue towards Civic Center Park, the mood was more birthday party than memorial service, more celebration than commemoration.
Standers-by applauded along the parade route, children waved from apartment windows, and volunteers handed out water and hot chocolate. Advocates with Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (A Colorado Trust grantee via the Health Equity Advocacy strategy, or HEAS) led chants about justice and equality, and denominations of all faiths flew their banners. One local Starbucks franchise handed out free coffee to marchers, with the help of students from the Colorado “I Have a Dream” Foundation.
The feeling of belonging that day was in stark contrast to the upheaval felt by so many in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. All elections are important, but for many Coloradans this one was personal. The ensuing belligerent shifts in the policy landscape cast doubts on who “we” actually includes.
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“The problem of ‘othering’ is the problem of the 21st century,” john a. powell said at the Colorado Fiscal Institute's 2017 Fiscal Forum, a few days prior to the MLK celebration. “The solution is belonging.”
(powell’s remarks were reminiscent of his 2015 speech from The Trust’s Health Equity Learning Series, which you can watch in full online. The Colorado Fiscal Institute is also a HEAS grantee.)
The Fiscal Forum typically focuses on tax and budget issues in Colorado, and there was still plenty of fiscal discussion this year. The program included expert speakers and in-depth analysis of the state’s fiscal condition, as well as discussion about the congressional push to repeal the Affordable Care Act and other threats to the federal safety net.
The presentation from powell, a University of California, Berkeley professor and director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, underscored the linkages between tax and economic policy and centuries-old structural racism and discrimination. Through economic regulation, education programs, housing policy, lending practices and other mechanisms, the rights and resources of people of color—and people living in poverty—have been consistently plundered in unequal measure.
Power structures maintain these divides, powell contends, in large part through the concept of the “other.” This refers to the role of processes, policies, structures and dynamics that marginalize people across the “full range of human differences”—race, class, religion, gender, income, sexual orientation, disability and more—creating and maintaining persistent inequality.
The notion of “othering” was at the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign. Women, low-income families, African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants, people with disabilities, refugees, gay and lesbian and transgender people, and many more were consistently harassed, belittled and bullied—and are now under threat of abrupt changes in federal policies that impact their daily lives.
As powell described it, the new president is masterful in conveying fear that “there’s an ‘other’ out there who wants to take your lunch money, who wants to take your identity.”
The effect is not an abstraction, and neither is the toll it takes.
In southwest Colorado, several Latino students—legal residents—tried to drop out of school so as to take on jobs to earn as much money as they could before the inauguration, after which they assumed they would be deported, officials at the Tri-County Health Network (also an HEAS grantee) said in an interview.
Fortunately, school staff intervened and prevented students from dropping out. However, the fear persists.
In another school district, the superintendent wrote an open letter to students and families after the election to reinforce that their schools are a welcoming place.
“Our critical mission is to ensure that our schools are safe spaces where a student’s race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status do not create barriers to that child’s education,” wrote Michael Gass, superintendent of Telluride Schools, in a bilingual letter.
In Denver, organizations that work with immigrant and refugee communities are seeing increased incidences of targeting, intimidation and harassment.
“It goes beyond just being afraid,” said Harry Budisidharta, deputy director of the Asian Pacific Development Center (APDC), another Trust HEAS grantee. “We have heard increasing reports from some of our clients saying that now, when they walk down the street, they’re experiencing more harassment from people that just drive by and yell out, ‘Go home, go back to where you came from, you terrorist!’”
The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that at least 15 hate crimes and incidents of harassment occurred in Colorado in the two weeks following the election.
“While folks want to say that this is a welcoming state, I think part of that analysis is looking at if we are actually implementing policies that make this a safe, healthy and welcoming place,” added Justin Valas, an APDC health policy advocate.
Being continually marginalized and “othered” is corrosive and toxic. It’s one of the many reasons that people withdraw. Whether that takes the form of not renewing health insurance, not going to school or work, or not engaging in community and civic venues like elections, it’s bad for your health.
“Many of the communities we serve were already struggling to maintain good health due to the financial instability in their lives—and now, with our newly elected [federal] administration, we are seeing more fear and confusion about what the future holds,” said Felicia Griffin, executive director of FRESC: Good Jobs Strong Communities, also a Trust HEAS grantee.
That’s the burden many people across different communities are shouldering after an election that unmasked parts of the electorate that don't think they belong, and don't want to make them feel welcome. For the “othered,” from a health outcomes standpoint, this can matter more than many other variables.
“Belonging is more important than diet,” Professor powell said at the Fiscal Forum.
Community leaders and advocates are countering some of the fear and confusion by organizing meetings, holding “know your rights” trainings, and finding different ways to be supportive of one another.
“It’s bringing a lot of people together to fight against what people are terrified is going to happen,” said Lynn Borup, executive director of the Tri-County Health Network. The organization recently participated in a meeting with several other local organizations and community members to discuss responses to potential anti-immigrant policies.
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“Lots more people are going to die because of rollbacks in coverage and access,” said Joe Sammen, executive director of the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved, about the prospects of repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Coalition is a HEAS grantee.
It’s a blunt statement in the normally nuanced world of health care policy. But by most any assessment, the impact of outright repeal of the ACA would be disastrous for hundreds of thousands of Coloradans.
According to analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the number of people without insurance in Colorado would more than double with repeal, from 438,000 now to 1,026,000 without the ACA. Colorado would lose $33.3 billion in federal funding, forcing the cost of uncompensated care to skyrocket.
Though the stakes are high with health care, and ACA repeal is something that many congressional leaders and the president stumped on, it is far from the only issue under assault.
“It’s really easy to get into this ‘oppression Olympics’ conversation, where you can say that housing is the most important, or food is the most important, or health care is the most important,” Sammen said, “when really we know that everything is interdependent, and if one piece suffers then everything suffers. The implication of that can’t be understated.”
Classism, racism and sexism do not happen by themselves. Economic inequality cannot be disentangled from racial inequities.
“In reality, we know that those things happen simultaneously,” added Sammen. “In this country, they don’t happen in isolation.”
And if conventional power structures and institutions are left unchecked, they are prone to become normalized, systematized and codified into law.
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“We’re about to have a tremendous test of our institutions,” said Vox’s Ezra Klein in a podcast interview that aired in December. “I don’t know how to talk about it, because it sounds so alarmist, but the range of plausible outcomes in American politics is wider than we thought.”
The new reality about what is or is not plausible in our politics might prompt foundations and advocates to rethink how they engage with civic structures, democratic processes and communities themselves. Without greater resilience and equity in democracy, the policy, social and cultural changes that much of philanthropy seeks will simply not be sustainable.
The 2016 presidential election illustrates how this can happen—how a historically unpopular candidate can win office with broadly unpopular and demonstrably regressive policy positions. It happened, at least in part, because of systemic and economic disenfranchisement, erosion of voter rights and widespread political apathy.
“Being disenfranchised, muted, and ignored has a direct impact on life span, which is a direct attack on individual health outcomes,” said Felicia Griffin.
Unpacking the complex ties between political disenfranchisement and health outcomes is not easy, but it’s real.
While Colorado is fortunate to have modernized voting policies and practices to make it more accessible and more secure, many historically disenfranchised communities continue to be underrepresented in the electorate. Even among newly registered voters in Colorado in 2016, Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans were slightly underrepresented compared to the overall population, according to post-election analysis from Project New America.
A broader cycle of disengagement can emerge when barriers to voting lead to lower turnout, and lower turnout leads to decreased political power. The resulting disconnect to the political process and the policy decisions made by elected officials can lead to deep-seeded indifference and the sense that “none of it matters.”
But everything matters, especially when the margin of victory in a presidential election comes down to 79,646 people in three states—a crowd that could squeeze into Mile High Stadium. Trump’s razor-thin win was not a landslide, as evidenced by his 2.9 million-vote loss in the popular vote. Rather, it was what CBS News political analyst and Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie called “an ideal geographic distribution of voters.”
People didn’t—or couldn’t—show up to vote.
“Everyone wants to belong, and I believe everyone wants to be heard,” said Griffin. “We have to invest the time to build strong, healthy, resilient communities that are working not just to band-aid our systems, but that are addressing our structural and systemic barriers.”
“A lot of political participation is not exactly friendly to [many] people,” added Justin Valas, referencing barriers such as language, culture, transportation and time, when it comes to participating in caucuses or testifying at the state legislature.
For philanthropic and advocacy organizations focused on equity, this non-voting population presents a compelling opportunity for engagement. People who are not registered to vote—or those who are registered but don’t cast a ballot—are typically younger, poorer and more racially diverse than the active voting population. In 2016, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of a post-election poll of 100,000 registered voters, people of color who were registered were less likely to vote than white voters; and younger people registered were less likely to vote than older voters.
As well, according to past studies by Pew Research Center and the U.S. Census Bureau, non-voters are less likely than voters to be interested in politics, to think issues affect them, or to believe that voting matters.
Yet, when your right to access health care, to earn a living wage, to put a roof over your head, to marry who you love, to practice your faith, or even simply to exist safely in your own community is being dismissed or outright denied, voting matters quite a lot.
This is not just a behavioral challenge where individual motivations prevent broader democratic participation. There are structural elements that lead to wide disparities in turnout across economic and racial lines.
In the report Why Voting Matters, Sean McElwee points to the historical legacy of American elections that originally only included white landowners, until laborers, women and African-Americans eventually won the right to vote after hard-fought suffrage movements. This legacy still results in “unequal turnout” that is more prone to leave people of color and people in poverty out of the democratic process.
“Such voting inequality is underestimated in its social impact and in the larger policy debates about the direction of our country,” McElwee writes. “Our democracy has far too many missing voices, particularly among those who are already less advantaged due to racial and class barriers in our society.”
The 2016 presidential election was the first in 50 years to not provide the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, a result of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby decision. This enabled 14 states to enact new voter restrictions, such as strict registration deadlines, photo identification requirements, reduction of polling places, racially driven redistricting and other barriers that appear to disproportionately affect black and Latino voters.
As reported in The Nation and other outlets, Wisconsin, North Carolina and other states where new voter restrictions took effect saw decreased turnout in predominately black and Latino areas that, in many cases, correlated to drastically reduced numbers of polling places.
Though voter turnout in Colorado outpaces most of the country and new restrictions have not been enacted here, these examples of racial, class and structural barriers still merit the question of who “we” includes in terms of democratic participation.
Though there is no singular solution, more attention to civic capacity, voter education and organizing is a place to build on.
“I believe that we need more investment, particularly in Colorado, for organizing,” said Griffin. “Not outreach and engagement, but organizing that has strong leadership-development components.”
Some philanthropy experts point to civic capacity as an area ripe for more support, as there is a role for foundations to play in strengthening it.
“With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health,” wrote Ben Soskis in The Chronicle of Philanthropy following the election. “No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests."
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All is not lost, though, in the wake of 2016. Colorado voters passed an increase in the minimum wage, and the state is well-poised to advance progress on many other issues. Colorado continues to lead the country in the number of women elected to the state legislature. And a Latina, Rep. Crisanta Duran (D-Denver), is serving as House Speaker for the first time in state history.
Broad coalitions are mobilizing to protect health care access and coverage. Civil rights advocates are ramping up defense mechanisms and rapid-response operations. And in some places, there is even a whiff of optimism in the wake of a distressing election.
“That optimism is in the people and in the community, because we’re still here,” said Valas. “Things have not been easy, but there’s a community resilience, and a rich history of organizing and solidarity for folks to build on, and new folks to join in.”
“It’s not all ‘kumbaya’ and sitting in drum circles,” said Budisidharta. “Some coalitions are fracturing because there’s history of bad blood between different organizations or different personalities. There is definitely opportunity, but we are now challenged to actually do the work.”
Those challenges are quickly taking shape, as the early days of the Trump administration have included troubling executive actions and anticipated policy changes that will affect health care coverage, housing, immigration, reproductive health, financial regulation and more.
Yet despite the overwhelming nature of these changes, the speed and expanse of affected and allied communities coming together to resist potentially harmful federal policies is an impressive display of civic activism. From local shows of support to the national mobilization around the Women’s March, hopeful notes are struck when so many stand up to support and defend fundamental civil and constitutional rights.
“If we’re grounded in our values, organize and take action, the charge is on us and we will be fine,” powell remarked at the Fiscal Forum. “I don’t mean 20 years from now. I mean sooner than that.”
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During the MLK Day Marade, as snow continued to fall, a young black boy spotted a cameraman atop a TV news van.
“Hey news guy! Put me on the news,” he requested, as he jumped up and down, hands waving, with a bright smile across his face.
He belonged. But he wanted to be seen and heard, too.
A few minutes later, he walked by again with a handwritten sign featuring King’s famous quote that “the time is always right to do what is right.”
“Did you get me?” the boy asked the cameraman, who nodded yes. “You sure? You’re not lying, are you?”
It wasn’t just hope the boy had. It was resolve.
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If you are interested in learning more about The Trust’s Health Equity Advocacy strategy, or connecting with one of the 18 participating organizations, click here for more information.
Editor’s note: Scott Downes is a former program officer at The Colorado Trust, and helped create the first phase of the Health Equity Advocacy strategy.