Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

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Black Lives Matter

The past couple weeks have seen an outpouring of grief, protests, and calls for change following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s murder, by police, is not a one-off. For Black Americans – and Black Canadians – police violence and systemic racism is an everyday and ongoing problem.

As a white, male Canadian, it’s hard to know how to talk about police violence and racism without coming across as performative or inauthentic. Well-intentioned but cringe-worthy attempts by white people who end up putting a focus on themselves – instead of people who are actually marginalized and oppressed – are pretty frequent.

Much like the pandemic, though, police violence against people of colour and the movement against it are part of the world we live in today. Carrying on with this blog’s usual topics (government IT and, uh, more government IT) without mentioning it seems artificial, at best, and staying silent in the face of injustice, at worst.

For people in positions of privilege (white Canadians, for example), one of the most important things is to examine and reexamine how our own actions (especially well-intentioned ones) contribute to racism and inequality. They do. Before anything else, figuring out ways to do less harm is really important.

All of this involves listening, learning, and being open to often really uncomfortable conversations about how things that we do inadvertently harm others. If we’re speaking up in a meeting, or volunteering for some kind of opportunity, are we taking up space from someone with less opportunity to do so? Are we only listening to or interacting with people with the same upbringing or norms or culture as ourselves? How do we change that?

Friends and colleagues have been sharing a lot of really important resources over the past couple weeks (articles, books, places to donate to). Here’s a few that stood out:

(Many thanks to everyone sharing these and other articles and reflections over the past week or two! Lucas Cherkewski’s newsletter this week introduced me to several of them.)

Fighting systemic racism, as a public servant

Some of the conversations that really stood out in the past week were from fellow public servants, challenging each of us to more directly confront racism in our work and in our interactions with others. As politically-neutral public servants, it’s often easy to shy away from conversations about inequality and social justice that might feel “too political”.

Glennys Egan kicked off a really important conversation on this last week, that’s still continuing:

There’s two angles on this – one is, how do we talk about the fact that government systems aren’t equitable, from the inside? Historic injustices against Indigenous people and people of colour are built into the origins of many of the institutions we work in. How do we rethink that, and create government services that are more compassionate, more inclusive, and deliberately designed to challenge and reduce inequity?

The other angle is: how do we confront the reality that Black public servants face systemic barriers to their careers, and retribution for community advocacy work? The senior executive ranks of the federal public service are almost completely white, which makes it ill-prepared to understand systemic biases against public servants of colour, and ill-prepared to address issues like police violence and systemic racism in society at large.

What does a different future look like?

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ezra Klein published a great interview last week, where the ongoing theme was optimism for change despite police oppression and the current state of American politics. Reading it, their reflections on what a different kind of government and society could look like really stood out:

One thing I’ve been thinking about is whether the question can and should be turned around: Instead of nonviolence being the ethic demanded of protesters, what if it was the ethic demanded of the state? That seems more reasonable to me, at least as a goal.

The core of nonviolence is that you will transform those you are in relationship with through your own willingness to suffer and forgive. You will forgive over and over and over again. You will always hold out the hope of growth and transformation, and you will accept enormous risk and pain to create space for it.

There are many ways we could think about this in terms of the state. You could think about prison abolition. You could have police who did not have guns. If nonviolence is such a beautiful way of living, I think we should imagine that for the state. I think it’s actually worth doing.

Building a more just, equitable society is a public policy question. It’s so much more than that, too. But for public servants, public policy students, and aspiring and current politicians – it’s so important to recognize that working to build a better society is what you signed up for. It isn’t just a thing to watch other people do, on the news or from the sidelines. It’s what you’re here for.

Doing this well – making things better, instead of making things worse – involves stepping back, listening, and ceding space to other people who don’t have the privilege that you have. It involves, as a first step, not doing harm. And it involves learning as much as you can from people of other communities, backgrounds, and cultures, and shifting power to them without making it about yourself.

I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn; writing a blog post this long feels questionably close to making it about myself. If you’re interested in more to read, check out Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present (whose CBC interview is mentioned above), or – especially for a technology lens on systemic racism – Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (which Lia Milito recommended). If you’re a federal public servant, you can also join in to conversations Glennys and others are organizing to build an inclusive and anti-racist public service.