Looking back on my summer in Washington D.C., I realize that most of my stipend went to food. I’m thinking of one Saturday morning in particular, where I sat down for brunch without looking at the menu first. There was some serious sticker shock when I learned that it was a brunch buffet—and certainly not a cheap one.
But one thing I didn’t spend any money on was souvenirs. Instead, I’m taking home skills I’ve learned in public policy and public interest communications.
Interning at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, I learned to put policy into human terms. Public policy can seem like an abstraction until you convey its impacts through compelling stories or hypotheticals.
But I also learned that the reverse—putting human terms into policy—is equally important. It’s a mindset I look forward to bringing back to Macalester College in the fall.
What exactly does it mean to put human terms into policy? I see it as focusing broader social movements into specific policy change. For an example, look no further than the link between the Black Lives Matter movement and its policy platforms, Campaign Zero and the Movement for Black Lives. Campaign Zero provides specific, actionable policy recommendations at the federal, state, and local level to address police violence. The Movement for Black Lives takes a broader look at policies directly affecting black communities.
Both policy platforms answer the question posed by commentators like CNN’s John Blake: “What does Black Lives Matter want?”
The movement has taken the all too real threats of racial profiling and excessive force and translated them into policy proposals like ending overzealous policing of minor offenses (‘broken windows policing’) and revising use of force policies in local police departments.
There’s plenty of work to be done in Minnesota, the state I’ve called home for the last three years. That’s because the land of ten thousand lakes is also home to some of the nation’s worst racial disparities. Minnesota has the most financial inequality among racial groups out of all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, Minnesota’s people of color are 17.2% more likely to live in poverty. They’re also less likely to graduate from high school and 35.4% less likely to own their own home.
At Macalester, I can’t count the number of times myself or my classmates have used the words ‘structural’ or ‘institutional’ when discussing inequality, racism, and other typical topics of discussion at a small liberal arts college. If we had a jargon jar of our own, we’d be raising hundreds of dollars for charity.
But it’s impossible to address these disparities without changing the policies that institutionalize him. It’s not enough to just say that an issue is structural or institutional. What specific policies contribute to Minnesota’s racial disparities in household income, poverty rates, and educational attainment? How can they be changed to reflect a more diverse Minnesota? In my senior year, I want to take a closer look. I want to know how Minnesota spends its TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known more simply as welfare) block grant on social safety net services. I will look at state tax expenditures on homeownership and investment in secondary and higher education. I also want to investigate the progress Minneapolis and St. Paul are making on paid sick and family leave. The Karel Fellowship has pushed me think beyond generalities.
Thankfully, I didn’t need Clinton bobble heads or kitschy mug to be satisfied with my Karel experience. I’ve returned home empty-handed but not empty-minded, empowered by new knowledge of public policy and public interest communications. And to be frank, that’s far more valuable.