Q&A with CLASP Leaders: Meeting this Moment to Advance Racial Justice
By Barbara Semedo
The attack on our nation’s Capitol in early January was another sign of how deeply white supremacy is rooted in America. The following conversation occurred before this insurrection, but its lessons on moving forward in the wake of racial terror are more important than ever.
The Biden-Harris Administration and 117th Congress will have new opportunities to address the profound pain felt by so many across America. The pandemic’s health and economic crises are disproportionately striking Black, Latina/o/x, and Indigenous communities. At the same time, people have taken to the streets in protest of the historic presence of anti-Black police violence and systemic racism. To heal and become a nation of full inclusion, we must all confront one of this country’s most difficult realities: that racism and a lack of political leadership are driving forces behind the suffering. Our nation’s leaders must repair years of significant policy damage and restore the public’s trust in their government. In untangling harmful policies grounded in structural racism, we need new approaches that center people whose lives have been hurt the most and that create sustainable change to ensure that history is not repeated.
The Center for Law and Social Policy’s (CLASP’s) executive director, Olivia Golden, Ph.D recently joined LaVeeda Morgan Battle, Esq., CLASP board chair, to discuss this moment of racial reckoning, historic parallels, and opportunities ahead. They speak to their deep experience advancing policy that supports people with low incomes or who face racial injustice. Their insights can help policymakers and organizations lead in this challenging time and build solutions that center racial equity.
Below is a condensed version of their conversation, edited for clarity.
Question 1: Is there a moment that influenced your career path and one that was transformative for you? What persuaded you to pursue your area of expertise?
I grew up in Gary, Indiana. My school was segregated. Our books were used, discarded by the white schools. We couldn’t write in them, as we would have to hand them down to other students. We were living in a very segregated, unequal society.
When I was a teenager, my parents took me to Chicago to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We were in a stadium full of people but you could hear a pin drop. He talked about the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution (ending slavery and providing equal protection). He said if we could just realize what the 14th amendment meant, it would make all the difference for how we lived in our society.
I came back and thought, “who advocates for that?” And it’s lawyers. I came to understand that advocating for those kinds of rights must be the centerpiece of how we achieve the society that Dr. King was dreaming about.
Later, at the University of California-Davis law school, I interned at the Legal Services Corporation representing people without means to hire a lawyer. Without legal representation, people who were already living in poverty would have drastically lost something, like their home or job. I was transformed by the simple act of being able to change someone’s life by providing legal representation.
My parents’ immigrant experiences greatly influenced me. My father came to the U.S. as a baby, and my mother arrived when she was 19. The impact of public policy and what government did was clear to them both.
My father credited the G.I. Bill with giving him the chance to get an education, buy a house, and move into the middle class. Others in his family didn’t have that opportunity. My mother’s family had to leave Germany due to Hitler entering power. Her father — my grandfather — served in the German Parliament. They had not been able to stop Hitler’s rise to power and the tragedy of the Holocaust. My mother said he always felt that guilt.
The idea that public policy, the public sector, and what we do as citizens matters, was very much a part of my growing up. My mother saw a role in making the United States a better place. As members of society, we have both the opportunity and obligation to be part of that.
After college, I worked in the budget office of the Massachusetts agency that oversaw public benefit programs. It gave me a close-up look at the connection between ideas and policies and the ways people actually experience them.
Question 2: As the fight for racial justice has reached another inflection point, what does it mean for organizations to commit to racial equity?
The reality is this: As people sit in a room trying to figure out what to do about racial justice, unless you have in the room people who can bring that prism-like perspective of what it’s like to have hand-me-down books to study from, and the impact it’s had on your academic life — people who have been on that side of the barrier — you really don’t have the full story. You don’t have the full story of what it will take to shape the right kinds of policies to address the issues you’re concerned about, no matter how well-intentioned you are.
You have to have people in the room with real-world experience to help you shape the best policy solutions for those things that affect racial justice.
Coming to this realization early on, CLASP made some important staff hires. The organization paid early attention to the issue of racial equity, but not in the intentional way that it has over the last several years. The organization has been able to look very intentionally at what it is trying to build and why it’s important.
You can’t possibly achieve an anti-poverty mission without taking on issues of race, immigration, ethnicity, and racism in the system. The fact that CLASP already had a commitment to racial equity mattered a lot to me when I came to CLASP. What lay ahead was a lot of practical work to bring our work in line with that commitment.
We started building a more diverse staff and a more diverse board of directors. We systematically went after things in our hiring process that had prevented us from having access to the full pool of people we wanted to attract. We made a commitment to raising salaries and benefits because, to have a diverse staff, the organization needed to acknowledge that not everyone could just do this work out of love. We needed the pay and the benefits to reflect the work’s value.
There is such joy in reaching the kind of diverse staff and leadership we have now. It has opened up extraordinary talent, energy, and creativity.
Question 3: Can you reflect on leadership and racial equity?
CLASP is uniquely positioned to address institutional racism due, in part, to its intentional work on having the right voices in the room. This includes relationships with affinity organizations that are also on the front line. They bring knowledge from local chapters and from the breadth of work that’s been done in other areas, like immigration. Such partnerships really make a difference, because policy must be based on the real world.
Before coming to CLASP, one experience that taught me about leadership and racial equity was the three years I spent as Director of the D.C. Children and Family Services Agency, working with the Mayor and the staff to lead the agency out of court-appointed receivership. The system’s history and origins lay in a period when District government was overseen by a largely white Congress that never invested in Black families.
First, this experience really underlined that racism is systemic and persists even when individual people are trying hard to make good choices. The social workers in the District were amazing people. This system failed for many reasons, but it wasn’t about whether individual people cared. It really made you think about how you create policies, systems, and services that live up to individual people’s values, rather than making it impossible for them to do so. And second, although the work was deeply stressful and difficult, we came out the other side with dramatic improvements. Another lesson in leadership is going through pain and difficulty to achieve success. That is part of a leader’s obligation is to keep the idea of hope out there, even as we go back and forth between despair and hope.
Question 4: How does this moment compare to the past? What gives you hope?
What’s happening around racial equity is making the stakes really clear. They couldn’t be higher. It’s forcing people to choose sides in a way that people maybe didn’t have to before. It’s made clear the devastating level of racism in our country and its connection to the potential destruction of our democracy and the values we aspire to.
There’s been a real awakening in our country, but it’s a cycle. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, there was a major uprising that brought about changes in Congress and state legislatures. Some diversity was achieved and then there was retrenchment. There are a lot of similarities to today. There’s outrage at an act that is an abomination to humanity (the murder of George Floyd). That same kind of response is exactly what happened to shift where America was in the 60s.
Each year at my church, we commemorate what happened in the 1960s. Foot soldiers of the civil rights movement talk with elementary and high school students. One foot soldier who’d had fire hoses and dogs turned on them (back then) said, “You got to know your history. Your history is going to help you to know what you need to do.”
That’s the way I see this moment. It’s on a continuum.
Today, it’s important that organizational leaders who lived through what happened take time in handing the baton to the new, energetic generation of leaders. This generation sprouted up across this nation in absolute outrage at the murder of a Black man, in plain view, for no reason. We can help them see the long-term vision of what it will take for real change.
It is a long haul. It is life’s work. But it is the kind of work that becomes “legacy” work if we take the wisdom from elders in the Civil Rights movement handing the baton to the next generation.
Question 5: In one word or phrase, how would you describe the future for CLASP and our work to achieve racial justice at all levels of society?
To always fight back and offer solutions. No matter what the nature of the issue, it’s always going to be about economic justice, racial justice, and ending poverty. You are going to be fighting against a system where, if you don’t raise those issues and offer solutions, things will remain the same.
I would say ‘lighting a pathway.’ We’re about the vision and the practical steps that will get you there. We are lighting a path to get to that vision so people can find those solutions. And we will always embody and advance hope.