Grandison is a co-chair of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, a political partner of the Truman National Security Project and board chairman of the Data-Driven Institute, a nonprofit that promotes data science to solve public health problems.
It is a long-held belief by many Americans that their state, county and city all operate on the basic principles of representative democracy — that elected officials represent the entire group of people in the place that elected them. Furthermore, most Americans feel it is the duty of their elected leaders to make decisions in their best interest. Right?
This is the ideal world we paint. The ideal world we expect. The ideal world we hope for.
But example after example reflects how this perspective is a dream — possibly, an integral part of the American dream — and that reality does not live up to the ideal in most cases.
We can all agree there are important common core functions of community governance that must be performed. We hope those who raise their hands to volunteer to fulfill their duties have the purest of intentions. We hope the successful ones — those who get elected — are optimizing for the greater good. We hope they do no harm, move the arc of justice in the right direction and help create a better world for everyone we love and care for.
But what does it mean in terms of principles, values and daily behavior to optimize for the greater good?
To explore the concept, take a look at a world that I have been immersed in for decades: the information technology sector. Imagine a world where software and hardware are first produced for people who require the most help or have the least resources at their disposal. Picture a world where the potential negative impact of technology is not only considered when tools are being designed, but also is a critical part of implementation.
Broaden this analogy to city planning. Envision an alternate universe where your neighborhood transportation system was initially built to optimize the experience of people with limited use of their legs and eyes.
History shows that when this happens (and it rarely does), these systems scale, apply to and benefit all others in the community, because a system with the most constraints works just as well when those constraints are removed.
For elected leadership, this is true as well.
Elected leaders should prioritize addressing the needs of their constituents with the most constraints in place. In our current context, that means making decisions and building policy that is for the most disenfranchised, underserved and unappreciated communities. It means building with the needs of Native Americans, Blacks and all other people of color top of mind.
The lesson to learn from other domains, systems and sectors: By doing so, an elected leader is building a society that is better for everyone.
Imagine a world where all citizens have the same access to exploring their potential. They can have whatever education they desire. They can explore any tactile, creative, artistic or cerebral venture they feel drawn to. They can realize their dreams and contribute to the forward movement of their society. They can help and be helped — support and be supported -- by communities that recognize our mutual connection and unique abilities.
Picture a world where human rights, good housing, healthy food, clean water, fulfilling employment, personal safety, health care, due process and freedom to be their complete selves are not only guaranteed for all but are also embedded in every system and service in the ecosystem of governance.
Envision a universe where genocide is not allowed, drugs and money are not used as a tool to control and manipulate and labor and sexual exploitation is not permitted. And where systems, policies, tools and institutions do not encode, perpetrate and reinforce racism, prejudice, bias or the demise of entire segments of the population.
Elected leadership is a privilege that comes with immense responsibility. It is normally wrapped in the promise of understanding a better tomorrow. This promise gets echoed at every campaign stop, but it does not often materialize for everyone.
Elected leaders have responsibilities we all assume to be important: To listen and be empathetic. To heal and be self-aware. To be introspective and also look beyond self. To learn and be a good steward. To build community and take care of the most vulnerable.
When an elected leader faces a decision or takes an action, their North Star should lie in answering three questions. Who are the most vulnerable or marginalized communities that elected me? What needs to be done to improve their situation? How do I craft solutions for them that scale to benefit everyone?
Sadly, elected leaders have rarely focused on answering these questions.
Instead, our current reality is that elected leaders oftentimes spend too much energy searching for an equilibrium (what they call "finding common ground" or "compromise") between all the stakeholders who have their ear — business sector, lobbyists, unions, community groups, their political party's leaders and so on — under the often mistaken impression that this is the path to progress for all.
This is the narrative that predominates our culture. It is the path that elected officials think will work, that they think is best. This is the path that we have all been on for centuries. And it is the path that has led us to the unfair, inequitable and unjust world we live in.
There is a proven alternative: Optimizing the needs of the most vulnerable and constrained among us, confident that will better all of us. Why aren't more elected leaders taking this path?
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