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Looking Back to Move Forward

By Fay Gibson on February 4th, 2015

This year, Martin Luther King Day fell on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and after months of nationwide protest over police killings of unarmed black men and boys. The simultaneous release of Selma, a film about the grassroots organizing and strategic planning of events that led up to the march in support of this bill, depicts events that are eerily similar to those happening today.

With sincere deference to the personal sacrifices of the men, women and children that enable me to reflect back today, it is not a coincidence that their sacrifices resulted in landmark federal legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in voting and laid a foundation to address future civil and human rights challenges. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country,” yet recent efforts to dismantle much of its intent illustrate that policy work doesn’t end after policy adoption.

A new generation of civil rights activists have had to reinterpret Dr. King’s approach to address a new set of challenges—some which threaten to undo a half-century of progress, and others which are unique to this millennium. Whatever our views about the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, New York City and elsewhere around the country, and whether we view Dr. King’s approach as top-down or bottom-up, consensus must be reached on how to address the senseless pattern of unarmed African Americans being killed by police.

For example, it must be determined whether the frequently suggested solution of body cameras strapped to police officers would actually be effective (the murders of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice were recorded, yet the grand juries and broader public came to drastically different decisions about how justice should have been served). What, then, is the change we want to see? More training for police officers? (But rarely do we hear of unarmed white men and boys being accidentally shot by black law enforcement officers.) Better community policing? (But the officers involved Eric Garner’s death were on a first-name basis with him, and the illegal, deadly choke hold was performed in the presence of a supervisor.) Should we advocate for special “handling” of indictments by independent prosecutors? Or have national standards for the use of force? Clearly, there is no single approach or quick fix for this issue.

Implementing the six-year Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities program taught Active Living By Design many lessons about advancing policy and systems change, some of which are compiled in Lessons for Leaders: Navigating the Process of Healthy Community Change. As a result, there is one thing we know for sure:

  • “Large scale change has no single path—change does not typically occur through single approaches that simply replicate the same method without continuously learning more about how the system works and changes.”

A report released by PolicyLink and Advancement Project in 2001, Community-Centered Policing: A Force for Change, puts this idea another way:

  • “In the end, the catalyst for meaningful reform will be the community itself . . . a mobilized and informed community organized around an agenda for reform is the key to sustained change.”

The Voting Rights Act underscored the importance that policy has in shaping our lives. The struggles that civil rights activists went through 50 years ago are echoed in what communities of color still face today. As public health professionals who are serious about creating a Culture of Health, we must continue to identify examples of what people are doing in their respective communities to address these and other inequities.

Fay Gibson

Active Living By Design Alumna

Former Senior Project Officer at Active Living By Design, old-school community organizer and advocate for social justice and equity for all.