Since the news of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri last week, I’ve been thinking about what I personally can do to address this systemic disease of police brutality in the United States.
I used to work on innovative and award-winning problem-solving justice projects in New York City, many of which brought me into collaboration with committed and fair public safety officers. I know that not all police officers act as if they are above the law, and I also know that it takes a certain sacrifice to work in service of public safety every single day.
However, police excessive use of force is an institutionalized problem across this country, not only in the most horrific cases of death, but also in the everyday profiling of (mostly) men of color in stores, in their cars, and on the streets.
I have also been reading about who holds elected power in Ferguson (mostly white, in a city where the overwhelming majority identify as African American), and one particularly dark piece about a similar state of affairs in Alabama, and I have found myself more depressed and unhopeful than I have been in a long time. I am generally optimistic about the potential of American democracy to be continuously perfected in service of the greater good, but these articles really highlight how our electoral systems and legislative process are being manipulated for pure evil as well. I feel particularly sad and frightened to think about what Alabama’s recent experience of pre-Civil Rights era black political power portends for the rest of the nation.
Better informed on this state of affairs, I have thought very hard about what different kinds of action I could take. Even in multiple discussions with family and friends, nothing we came up with seemed like it would have a meaningful impact on the problem, which fundamentally is about the distribution of power and privilege.
But then, this afternoon, my good friend and Executive Director of CUNY’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, Kevin Nadal, challenged me. No, not to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (which has raised a record $42 million over the past week).
He challenged me to the #KnowYourPrivilegeChallenge. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it just started today!
In it, Kevin names three privileges that he has in his life, and then he names three organizations that address that privilege, to which he has made a donation.
What I loved about Kevin’s #KnowYourPrivilegeChallenge video is that it opened up a frame for positive action (addressing and acting on your privilege), and a systematic way of addressing it (three donations, a “multi-pronged approach”).
As a white American woman from an upper middle class background with lots of fancy education, I have a many, many privileges to be grateful for. And I am.
In these days of Ferguson, in order to harness my privileges in service of a world that I aspire to live in, I’ve made donations to three organizations that are working systemically to change the status quo.
PowerPAC+, so that more people of color and women have political power and that social justice champions are elected to positions of elected authority in the places that need it most.
YWCA of NYC, so that young girls of all backgrounds have access to the kind of positive development opportunities that I had as a kid.
Bunker Hill Community College, so that all people, regardless of income or nationality, have access to the kind of education that allows us to become our best selves.
We all have our own ways of acting, and I am privileged even to be able to make these donations (thanks for the challenge, Kevin!). It is my hope that the money will help these organizations — more expert than I in each of their own interventions — keep doing what they are doing to achieve peace and justice in this country.
But as the saying goes “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Please consider yourself challenged to consider your own privileges, and invited to act in service of a more just world, in whatever way you see fit.