The Government is Us: Strengthening Democracy for Racial Equality
I am frustrated and exhausted at the continued racial disparity in America. We continue to see black people killed disproportionately by the police. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed “faultlines” in the health outcomes between different ethnic groups. We continue to see that the majority of the unhoused are people of color. This all serves to prove that systemic racism continues to exist. As a Cambodian/Vietnamese American who has had his own struggle with a sense of belonging, I hold deep within me a commitment, like all Oaklanders, to a world where all of us experience a sense of freedom, belonging and understanding.
Today we see protests throughout America. What is notable about the protests is how uncontroversial they are. We are all united in the aim of these protests, that we demand an end to racial disparity. Similarly, in Oakland, the majority of us want to house the unhoused and want to reduce the cost of housing. Yet as time goes by, these problems persist and even worsen. We see the same problems in other cities in America. As we elect one politician after another the problems persist. These problems will persist until we recognize the root of the problem: the lack of engagement in local politics has made the government unaccountable to the people’s interests.
While the majority of residents desire policies that promote equity, most are not aware of what district they live in, or what councilmember represents them or what decisions are being made. The barriers to political engagement are numerous and many Oaklanders have little excess time to spend on civic matters. Thus government represents those who can show up, a small vocal minority who has access to government, have contributed to it’s campaigns and have the time and energy to engage.
Thus, predictably, the people march in the streets because they do not feel heard. They are calling for the downfall of the system because it is broken. And when all is said and done, I am not convinced any change will occur because fundamentally, nothing has changed. It is this paradigm that government is something separate from us that I want to challenge. The government is us. We will only see true change when we address this root issue of engagement. When the people are engaged, they can hold government accountable and only then can we take effective actions to address issues such as police brutality, homelessness and affording housing. As a candidate for Oakland District 1 Councilmember I promise to reduce the barriers to political engagement so that we have a democracy that truly represents all of our people.
To this end, here are some ideas that can reduce the barriers to political engagement.
- Implement an online system that enables residents to propose and vote on council measures. We need to ensure this system is universally accessible, kiosks can be placed in post offices and libraries. On a related note, internet access should be a right, free or affordable to all residents. I applaud recent council action toward achieving this goal.
- Ensure that we continue to have council meetings over zoom or some other interactive teleconference platform. The first emergency council meeting during the Covid-19 emergency had over 100 attendees, much more than a typical meeting. This has been a silver lining to this pandemic, technology has forced the government to find new ways of enabling engagement. Let’s maintain remote access to council meetings after the pandemic.
- Prioritize transparency and support our local news outlets. The free flow of information is needed to enable engagement. Currently, it is difficult to access Oakland specific data such as local business health indicators. Impediments to accessing this data deters engagement.
All Oaklanders want a city where all are heard and loved but we must prioritize creating a local government that hears all voices and facilitates participation. We must come to understand that civic engagement is not optional. Civic engagement enables the reforms we want to see. A government that hears the voices of all of the people has the possibility of actually protecting black and brown lives.