Engaging with disenfranchised people before advocating for them is essential to policy-making, said Michele Tuck-Ponder, Associate Director at the University’s Office of Career Services and former mayor of Princeton, at a Leadership Education and DiversitySummit panel discussion on Friday.
Lauren Burke, Executive Director and co-founder of Atlas: DIY, notedthe importance of peer-to-peer education when working with undocumented immigrant communities and other marginalized groups.
“It is ridiculous for me, a privileged and educated white woman, to tell a 17-year old black kid what to do when he’s stopped and frisked by the cops,” she said.
She stated that 98 percent of non-profit executive boards in the country didn’t even have representatives from the constituency the organization serves. She added that she had attended several meetings with a roomful of “white citizens” who, among themselves, spoke of the best way to work with undocumented immigrants and people of color.
Tuck-Ponder added that as a black woman, when she entered public office, she saw everything through the lens of race and gender.
“My identity was front and center for me because it wasn’t front and center for anyone else,” she said.
Burke, who worked with youth trafficked from China to labor in restaurants, also noted the importance of language to empowering these immigrants.
Instead of just getting them a Green Card, she suggested having conversations with these youth about how to appear in court and teaching them the law.
Panelist Simran Jeet Singh, Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity University, highlightedthe importance of language and spoke about finding people in the middle ground and making personal connections when implementing policy changes. He said that boundaries of identity often keep people from interacting with each other, but telling stories was a very powerful way to humanize others, as demonstrated by online pages like Humans of New York.
Singh added that laws have been passed to placate minority groups only after instances of extreme violence against a large group of the minority community.
Speaking about the petition to track hate-crimes against the Sikh community, a phenomenon that rose sharply after the 9/11 attacks, he said that despite multiple op-eds in newspapers like the New York Times, policy-makers took no notice of the issue until the massacre at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. in 2012.
“We realized, after that incident, that each time there is a large act of violence against a community, you get to ask the government for one thing, because the media spotlight is on you, and you’ve got to use it,” he said.
Tuck-Ponder added that the intent of the law, even when honorable, was frequently lost when implemented.
“Who can use a bathroom, who can get an abortion - all these decisions are being made by, frankly, people who aren’t that smart,” she said.
Burke sympathized, saying that law was a fallacy, with laws still drenched in patriarchy and inaccessible to many sections of the population.
“We’ve created a system that we pretend has something to do with objective truth, and it doesn’t,” she said.
All the panelists agreed that entering public service was still a privilege in the United States — it is a career option only for the wealthy.
“I can handle earning only $50,000 a year, because if anything happens to me, I can always fall back on my parents’ couch, but this simply is not an option for most people,” Burke said about the need to pay those in the non-profit sector more.
The panel, entitled "Race and Ethnicity in Law and Policy",took place in Lewis Library 138 andwasmoderated by Ross Donovan ’16, who was part of the 2016 LEAD Summit. The panel was sponsored by the Undergraduate Student Government, Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, Office of the Vice President for Campus Life and Office of the Provost.