As the U.S. gets closer to becoming a nation where the majority of its citizens are people of color, Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder in residence of PolicyLink, is focused on innovating and improving public policy to ensure opportunity for all low-income people and communities of color.
In this wide-ranging pre-election discussion, she explains the potential impact of California ballot measures; the need for radical solutions in employment, law enforcement, and education; and how local civic leaders across the nation are stepping forward to expand today’s equity moment into a revolutionary movement.
Brian Lowery: Can you tell us a little bit about what PolicyLink is and why you started it?
Angela Glover Blackwell: PolicyLink is a research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. When I founded PolicyLink around 20 years ago, the purpose was to be able to influence policy from the wisdom, voice, and experience of the people who were working for change in their local communities. There are a lot of national policy groups out there, but most of them are based in D.C. and they work with the rhythm and style of policy in D.C.. My experience from before I started PolicyLink was that people in local communities — organizers, residents, service providers, people in local government, etc. — are very creative when it comes to solving problems, but the world of national policy takes place far away from them.
Brian Lowery: How political is your work on policy?
Angela Glover Blackwell: Policy and politics really go together because good ideas that develop into good policy initiatives aren’t going to get put in place if you don’t get the politics of how change happens; you’ve got to convince the people that have the power. Just having an elegant policy idea isn’t going to necessarily move it forward. Black Lives Matter, for example, has done more to push forward conversations about police, reparations, work, and housing, than all of the elegant policy ideas coming out of those think tanks. I think that people who deal with racial equity are really underseen in that they have to put it all together: the data, the policy development, the politics, the people who sit in the halls of power, and the people on the ground who understand their issues.
Brian Lowery: How do you distinguish between “equity” and “equality?”
Angela Glover Blackwell: Equity and equality have drastically different meanings, and equity is always the one we should be striving for. When people talk about equality in education, what they have in mind is that children should go to school for the same amount of time, use books with the same kind of curriculum, have teachers with the same training, etc. But equity asks: “what’s the outcome?”. We want all children to achieve at high levels, graduate, and go on to reach their full potentials. Once you know what you want the outcome to be, it’s important to look at what the inputs have to be to get there. Equity focuses on the difference between where you are and where you want to be, without getting so caught in equality that you might miss the equity goal all together. Some children live in communities that have suffered from underinvestment and don’t have the kinds of things that upper-class communities such as parks, stimulating activities, and parents that can connect them by money and networks to anything they need. If that’s what’s needed for people to reach their full potential, and some children don’t have it, governments need to ask themselves how they can make sure those children get it. I think that the equity discussion really takes the civil rights movement to the next level, and asks “once you remove the legal barriers, what does it take to set up a standard that all children should be able to reach their full potentials?”
Brian Lowery: What I think I hear you saying is that there is inequality in society, and it’s the role of the government to address it. And to do that, they need to provide more for some than others, because some need more to achieve their full potential. Do you think we’re ready for that?
Angela Glover Blackwell: 20 years ago, when we started PolicyLink, no one was ready for it. I can’t tell you the amount of pushback we got by just putting that word and definition out there. What’s happened in the past 20 years, even the last 20 weeks, is pretty astonishing. We have gotten to a point in this country where a lot of the leadership is actually calling for and ready for the equity movement. People are starting to understand that the fate of the nation is dependent on getting equity right. As we become a nation that consists of a majority of people of color (this year, the majority of all children — people 18 and younger — are people of color, and by 2030 the majority of the entire workforce will be POC), that means that the fate of the nation is dependent on the very people that have been disproportionately left behind. If we don’t have a democracy that works in the context of difference, it is not a democracy worth standing on the world stage. This country has been known for its vast, stable, and growing middle class. If people of color don’t become the middle class, that will no longer exist. The diversity that is this nation is a gift, because what could be more valuable in a global economy than to have a world population that is related to the globe by kinship, custom, and language? Equity is a democratic imperative, an economic imperative, and a national imperative. Business leaders, government leaders, philanthropic leaders, and civic leaders all get it.
Brian Lowery: We have a number of propositions on the ballot in California, and I’m curious to hear your thinking on two in particular. Could you tell us a little bit about Prop. 16 and tell us where your organization is on that?
Angela Glover Blackwell: PolicyLink and I are for Prop. 16. Prop. 16 allows for us to be able to undo the many years of discrimination by putting back in place things like affirmative action, and allow race to be taken into account in higher education institutions. Some time ago, we made a big mistake in California when we pulled back on affirmative action, and we are suffering for it. After World War II, California was a place where a ton of white immigrants who were undereducated, unhealthy, and had low potential were escaping to. California invested in these people, and by 1962 California ended up being on the front cover of NewsWeek magazine as the nation’s #1 state, with an unrivaled education system, healthcare system, and infrastructure. They took what they had, invested in those people, and got great results. As people began to age and the population began to change, we pulled back, and stopped being aggressive about reaching out and making sure that people were getting the investment they needed. Prop. 16 and Prop. 15 actually go very much together; they both represent a pull-up-the-ladder mentality. We put our resources, energy, and policy creativity out there to help one group of people, and then pulled back when another group of people has just started to get a toe-hold; California has got to step into the moment. It’ll be glad it did after it does, but it’ll be pulled in kicking and screaming.
Brian Lowery: Can you tell us the basics of Prop. 22?
Angela Glover Blackwell: Prop. 22 is more complicated than Prop. 16. We have, through technology, changed the nature of work and the economy. The economy doesn’t provide the kind of safeguards of employment that it once did. When I was a girl, people got a job, kept it, and retired from it. It’s different now. People have a difficult time making ends meet — low-wage work, entry-level jobs, front-line workers, etc. will provide enough money to support a family, particularly in expensive areas like the Bay Area and Los Angeles. At the same time that the economy was changing, we had opportunities emerge through app-based work like Uber and Lyft. What these apps do is they make money off of people’s labor, but don’t employ them as employees. They are completely dependent on their labor, but don’t employ them as employees. Because of that, they are able to bypass our labor laws. Prop. 5, on the other hand, says that people employed through these app-based jobs must be treated as employees. I’m sure the public is confused, because all the people in the television commercials supporting Prop. 22 are asking people not to take their jobs away. But the people in those commercials use those apps to make a little bit of money on the side, while already having a separate full-time job or being a student. However, there are a lot of people in California who are using these apps to make their entire living and want to be able to better support their families and receive employment benefits. For that reason, PolicyLink thinks that we need to vote “no” on 22. We need to keep the labor laws applied to these app-based businesses.
Brian Lowery: What’s interesting about that is you have a number of organizations that would agree with you on many things — many chapters of the NAACP, national Asian American organizations, and a number of others that are interested in racial justice — that disagree with you about Prop. 22. How do you make sense of that?
Angela Glover Blackwell: I am not sure that all of the organizations that are saying “yes” on 22 fully understand that it is the exceptions that are driving a lot of that people’s views on it. In addition, people who say that they just want to do it on the side have not allowed themselves to envision work as it should be — that they could make driving their full-time work if they had regular hours they could depend on. In modern society, we have gotten sucked into jobs where we have to have at least 3 or 4 to be able to piece together a living wage. Now, people are afraid to give up one of those pieces, as opposed to fighting to make a piece into what could be a whole job. We have become too accepting of an economy that does not work. I will give some credit to organizations who want to represent people who say that this is their livelihood, but in order to be able to build the economy we need, we are going to have to push back against these employers. I myself take Uber, and I always talk to my Uber drivers. I talked to one woman who told me that she drives 13 to 15 hours a day and lives in her car in a parking lot. That’s the worst story that I’ve heard, but I’ve heard similar stories from a lot of people when I’ve gotten in their cars. That is no way to live. We need to demand more from the corporations that are making huge dollars off of the labor of people who are desperate to make ends meet.
Brian Lowery: I see an interesting distinction between the people who are saying “yes” and “no” here. There are people who are focused on their immediate jobs, and even though they know it’s not great, they need to have food on the table at the end of the day. What you’re talking about is a longer term labor movement focused on the relationship between labor and capital. On the other side, though, some might feel that it’s a little paternalistic to be telling people what they should want or need, and not taking away things that they are telling us they want.
Angela Glover Blackwell: I think it is the job of the government to be able to put together systems in which people can live their lives, and those systems have to be guided by principles. They have to look at the overall picture, and say “these are the things that are going to guide our role in terms of governance, policy, and strategy. I think that we need to get back in that business when it comes to the economy. Our economy is failing the American people, and I don’t think you’ll have to talk to too many people to get reinforcement of that. There are people that have no security: no security about their housing, no security about food, no security about their health, etc. We need to think about how we can get the economy working again, and how we can get the people who are making the big bucks to understand that this isn’t just about how much wealth you can extract, it’s about how we can build a system that is sustainable going forward. In building that system, there are going to be some people that will fall on the outside of it in terms of what they want. We can’t create a system that allows for the people who want something slightly different to be able to control our standards and principles.
Brian Lowery: I’m gonna push back on your optimism. The economy is developing, as you pointed out. There’s some thinking that we’re moving towards self-driving cars, which will concentrate capital in even fewer hands because you won’t even need the drivers. You’re talking about creating a fair system, but this is a large thing to address. You have talked about the difference of revolution and evolution. Tell me what this revolution looks like.
Angela Glover Blackwell: I’m optimistic, but I’m also not naive. I know that this moment could pass without any measurable change happening. It’s up to those of us who see a way forward to figure out how to stretch this moment into a movement that leads to something transformative. It will be good for vast numbers of people, because what the people who have been disproportionately left behind need is for the system to work. Take education, for example. Anyone who looks at our education system can see that on a whole it is failing, compared to other countries. Some people are doing very well within it, and so we could just keep focusing on the people who are able to benefit from the schools that are good. Or, we could focus on those who are in the schools that are getting the least and aren’t performing. I feel confident that if we focus on the schools that are getting the least, and fix the system from there forward, everybody will benefit. Another system that is broken is the police system. It is not working for the communities that are in most need of safety and protection, but it’s working great for people who are affluent and live in areas where they can pay for security guards on top of police. When I say it’s not working, I mean it’s not bringing safety - what it is doing is what it was built to: control and contain. There are so many people, though, that they are trying to control and contain, that it is just not working anymore. It needs to be fixed, and not just through minor reform. We need to have a different North Star in terms of where we’re trying to go.
Brian Lowery: Politics is the practice of power, and many of these things that are fundamentally broken actually serve the powerful. Help me get on board with your optimism that these things can be fixed.
Angela Glover Blackwell: I think that you are realistic when you point out that we have to overcome that power that has put in place what we have. But we also know that the power really is with the people, when they embrace it, when they use it, when they act on it. Even when we use politics to get people in place who we think share our worldview, they don’t produce what we want if the people don’t demand it and keep demanding it. We have had times where we have had people in office who have disappointed us because we have disappointed ourselves. We sometimes think that when we elect somebody that’s of our mindset, we can just sit back and play pool, but we can’t. We have to stay active, keep organizing, keep an eye on them, and hold them accountable. Having the right person in the office without good, creative policy ideas that are transformative or the money to back them up will not produce the results that we want. Geoff Canada, the president of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, and his colleagues have scientifically proven that when you invest holistically in children — no matter what poor or what color they are — they will produce at high levels. And yet we have not done that for every child in America and there is no excuse for it. Even when Obama put forth the right program, it didn’t get the funding it needed. We have to have good ideas, we have to have a North Star, we have to have the right politicians, we have to have an organized community, we have to measure progress and change, and we have to hold the system accountable.
Brian Lowery: We have the presidential election coming up, and I assume Biden is more aligned with your interests than Trump would be, but he is still very tentative on some of the things you talk about as “revolution.” On policing, for example, he is tentative, for reasons that I think are understandable. This is where I wonder about the pragmatics vs. the revolutionary; he’s just trying to get elected. How do you create revolution in this context?
Angela Glover Blackwell: I think that one of the ways is to be comfortable with your role. I have never been in elected office, but I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked to run, and I have always said no. Because I want to do what I do, which is try to tell the truth, understand the truth deeply, and try to think about what would really make a difference and not just what would be popular. Once I can identify that, I then try to be an advocate for those things that move as close to that as possible. And if they’re not close, at least they’re not moving backwards, they’re still going in the right direction. I don’t want to ever be confused about that. I don’t know how I could go from what I’m doing now to being an elected official, in there, doing the compromising that has to be done. I want good people to be there, and I know that they’re not going to do everything I want them to do, but that’s not going to keep me from saying what needs to happen and pushing them when they don’t quite get there. To answer your question — we’re not clear enough about the roles that have to be played for the change that happens. We don’t have a good sense of what kind of person it takes to be able to be in these different entities and push to go forward.
Brian Lowery: Can you tell us a little bit about what you call “curb cuts?”
Angela Glover Blackwell: Back in 2010, when it became really obvious that we were becoming a nation that would be people of color, it was also the time that we were in a deep recession and the economy was front and center in people’s minds. At that time, a friend of mine and I started talking about this, and we concluded that the equity agenda — just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential — really is the economic agenda. If we could get equity right, we could get the economy right. We put together a National Equity Atlas, which highlights 3 factors: changing demographics from 1980 to 2050 disaggregated by race, about 33 economic indicators — medium wage, education levels, distance to work, etc., — and an analysis of what the GDP would be if we got rid of racial differences in income. In 2017, the GDP would have been 2.8 trillion dollars higher if we had done that. That fact clearly makes the point that equity is the superior growth model. But when I talked about it, it wasn’t the applause line I thought it should be. One day, I was waiting in the Green Room waiting to give a speech about it, and I realized I needed to talk about it differently, in a way people could relate to. And I came up with the idea of the “curb cut.” The cut-outs in the sidewalk are there because of the advocacy of people with disabilities in wheelchairs, and yet there’s hardly a person who moves around who hasn’t benefited from them in some way — pushing a stroller, pulling a wagon, pushing a cart, trying to catch a train with a suitcase behind you, etc. Even your 7-year-old new bike rider traversing the neighborhood has benefited from them. The curb cut shows that when you solve problems with nuance and specificity for those who are vulnerable and marginalized, the benefits cascade for everybody. Smoking on airplanes was originally banned to benefit the flight attendants because they were the most vulnerable in that situation. Once it was banned on airplanes, there began a movement to get it banned in public places, and because of that countless lives have been saved. The GI bill is another example: it started because people thought that of the 16 million returning veterans, about 100,000 of them may have trouble getting integrated back into the community. The GI bill ended up creating the white middle class — of those 16 million returning veterans, over 8 million took advantage of the educational opportunities and many more took advantage of the mortgage opportunities. The “curb cuts” helped highlight that if you solve problems with nuance and specificity for those who are most marginalized, vulnerable, and discriminated against, and the benefits will cascade to everybody.
Brian Lowery: More recently in your writings, you have written that “privileges must be abandoned.” That’s different from curb cuts, because with curb cuts nobody loses anything and everybody benefits. There’s a wide gap between those two things, even though the outcomes are the same. How do you go about transitioning between those two ideas?
Angela Glover Blackwell: We live in a society that has become really imbalanced; telling people that no one is going to have to change or give up anything is unrealistic. We are the wealthiest country on the face of the Earth, and yet we talk about austerity, we allow children to go to schools that are terrible and allow for people to live in terrible conditions. The 50 richest people in our country each have a wealth equivalent to that of an entire nation, so yes, they need to give some of that up. But they’ll still flourish; they may even do better. If we want to keep this country strong then some people need to pay more taxes. Those people should be the main ones speaking out, and giving back to a country that has allowed them to accumulate so much. The other thing is, the word “privilege” gets used in a lot of ways these days. I was talking about it in terms of people who have extraordinary wealth and are not paying their fair share. The other way “privilege” is used is when talking about “white privilege,” and understanding that white people who move through this society have privileges that black and latinx people don’t have. I think we need to be a little more thoughtful about that discussion, though, because I think a lot of what we call “privilege” in that discussion isn’t actually “privilege,” it’s race discrimination. If you’re white and you’re able to walk through a store and are not followed, and someone who is black is followed, the fact that you are not followed should not be considered a privilege. We need to make sure that we get rid of the discrimination, not the privilege.
Brian Lowery: I think we should be talking about white privilege, because when it’s only talked about in terms of discrimination, it allows white people to think that there is no self implication. The value of talking about privilege is that it says that this is a system that we all participate in, and it’s not possible for this system to affect just one person. If there is race discrimination against black or latinx folks, that must mean you’re implicated; you’re a participant in it and you have a moral responsibility to engage in trying to fix that. If you don’t have the sense that you’re implicated in it, there’s no real moral obligation to fix it.
Angela Glover Blackwell: I agree with you that people need to understand that they are complicit in what is going on. But I’m not sure that privilege suggests complicity. I suspect that for people who aren’t in the business of social change, it might be harder to draw them in if they think they have to give up their privilege. I also think that people have to understand that this hurts everybody — a system that only uses 60% of the talent we have in the nation hurts the nation. We need to think about the things that bind us together in the economy, so that we all understand that we are all hurt if we don’t get this right, and if you are complicit it will hurt you financially.
Brian Lowery: My concern is that it shapes the nature of the problem, and if people see that as the problem, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll come to the same solution. In the past, the way the nation has attempted to address these problems has not led to more equity.
Angela Glover Blackwell: I agree, I pay a lot of attention to words. What you say and how you say it makes such a difference, but we won’t get rid of racism and discrimination until a whole lot more people see that this is the way to go.
Brian Lowery: What would you tell all of the GSB students and young people watching this webinar right now?
Angela Glover Blackwell: Don’t let who you are get separated from your civic responsibilities. All of the young people that I have been in contact with have all been so inclusive; I love the way they introduce themselves with their pronouns, and how they are continuously finding new ways to reach out to those who are oppressed and go above and beyond. I was on a webinar recently, and someone suggested that we all describe ourselves so that the people who are visually impaired will be able to have a sense of who was there. There’s a sense of transformative solidarity — that we are all in this together. I see so many young people that understand the economy and want to go into business to make a contribution and respond to community problems. I am excited — I think that everything we want, this next generation could produce. It’s important that you vote, understand that politics make a difference, understand that service and government is a noble thing to do if you’re going to do it well, and don’t throw away the people who feel differently from you. You need to talk about how you feel and try to bring others along.
Brian Lowery: My last question is: what is your superpower?
Angela Glover Blackwell: Listening. I am often able to hear beneath what people say, and it allows me to be able to translate what it is they’re wanting and make a connection.
This is Leadership for Society: The Podcast, a series of conversations hosted by Brian Lowery, senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford GSB, that focuses on the most pressing issues of today. In this season of the podcast, Lowery explores the role of race in society, how race interacts with structures of power, and how systemic racism manifests itself in day-to-day business and policy decisions.