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Erica Atwood: Government isn’t broken, it’s sick

Erica Atwood. September 23, 2016 Category: FeatureFeaturedMediumPeople

This essay is an installment of Generocity’s ongoing “leaders of color” guest post series, in which local leaders of color write about their experiences of leadership within Philly’s social impact community. Read more about our intentions here.

If you are a radical thinker, are driven by innovation or just do not like mornings, being employed in larger traditional environment can seem counterintuitive.

Terms such as “the corporate monster,” the “nonprofit industrial complex” and “the political machine” are probably commonplace in your vernacular. You may not be a complete anarchist, but you’re not enamored by grandiose titles. And while you like to be comfortable, you cannot be bought.

I feel you.

I inherently buck systems, question authority and speak my mind with words and facial expressions that tend not to be conducive to a conventional workplace.  

Furthermore, had you told me circa 2000 I would become a political appointee in a mayor’s office for nearly two terms, you probably would have been met with a creative string of expletives. At the time I was content being a free spirit and in the community doing grassroots work. But just a few years later I met then-Councilman Michael Nutter, and as politicians go, he was different. He had divergent ideas and he paid attention to yours. He also didn’t seem to mind my directness or radical theories. 

When I committed to working for Michael Nutter’s mayoral run, it was considered ill-advised and short-sighted with Chaka Fattah and Dwight Evans in the race, especially as a young black woman and as someone who was “down for the cause.” He was not considered the candidate for the black community. Then, after a near-record-breaking victory, I took a position in the administration. This gave me the opportunity to challenge what I perceived to be wrong with government, and in turn, I learned a hell of a lot about systems and myself while I lead amazing initiatives focused on community engagement and racial equity.

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Fast forward to present day. Lately, Philadelphia politics have been embroiled in some sticky situations. On every level of government — local, state and federal — we have had lapses in judgment, misuse of funds and personal power plays at work. Even on a presidential level, the current climate, either way you lean, isn’t overwhelmingly encouraging. The landscape feeds a widespread notion that politics are corrupt and government is broken beyond repair.

I would offer that instead of viewing government as broken, it is sick. In order to be healed, larger systems need internal medicine, as well as some external healing methods. While many may view the political landscape as a biblical leper and leave it in a cave to die, I would offer that we should actively work together to heal it from the inside and outside.

We must have organizations that call us on our crap, that hold us to task to do better and not just push paper.

We need more change agents like my late friend and former colleague, Gloria Casarez, who was the first director for the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, and sitting Councilwoman Helen Gym, a staunch community and education advocate who is also the first Asian-American councilwoman. Both have unwavering commitments to Philadelphia — history makers, as well as shepherds of groundbreaking policies and legislation. Internal to government, there are always only a few of us and we never really know how long we’ll get to stay and be disruptive, but there’s always room for more.

Conversely, we must also have organizations such as the Philadelphia Student Union, the ACLU and #BlackLivesMatter that call us on our crap, that hold us to task to do better and not just push paper. These and other organizations and advocates need to hold political leaders accountable.

With a city as diverse as Philadelphia and with three generations of leadership at the helm in every sector, from my perspective there’s opportunity to actualize the more perfect union. We need to be the antibodies, antibiotics, acupuncture or whatever it takes to heal our systems of power to ensure all Philadelphians are making livable wages, are well-educated and feel safe regardless of ZIP code, religion, race, gender, sexual identity or country of origin.   

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