(Pictured: Tasneem G., Age 14, Lexington, MA)
On June 4th, 2020, hundreds of Lexington, MA residents, including myself, gathered in the town center to protest systematic racism. However, I was unaware that just the previous day, the Lexington town hall had just passed a law exemplifying our country’s broken system by passing a bill allocating $125,000 to design a new gun/firing range for the police. Not only was there already an existing range in Lexington, but it was an extremely insensitive decision considering the recent uproar across the nation about police brutality and violence. Learning how a town’s local government works and how to get involved should be a mandatory part of every middle/high school curriculum. The process for passing policies and current status of each policy under review should be made easily available to all residents. This, paired with mandatory education about systematic racism, will help people to understand and fully combat racism on the level where it affects them the most.
As a daughter of immigrants, I never understood how the government in my town worked. What was the difference between a city council and a board of selectmen? Between a ward and precinct? Who assigns how much funding schools get? How do pieces of legislation get introduced in Town Hall? In my school, we spent more than two months learning about the federal government, but only two days on how our town’s government worked. Our education should be balanced and more personal – think globally, act locally. A study by the National Research Center showed that only 19% of Americans ever contacted their local officials and only 25% had attended a public meeting in the last year. These statistics are abysmally low, and it’s because many Americans simply don’t know how to get involved in their local government.
If we don’t even know how to affect change in the most basic level – local government, how do we expect there to be change in the federal government? If we are passive bystanders to our communities enacting racist policies, it is only expected that when the federal government enacts racist policies they will go unchecked. We must take initiative to educate ourselves and then help spread that knowledge to others. We should not only teach the basic workings of our local government to students, we must also teach them how to be engaged and provide feedback in policymaking. This is how a real democracy works: everybody can and knows how to get their voice heard. Without a thorough understanding of our local government, we cannot elect people we truly support, endorse legislations we truly believe in, and fulfill our promise to our nation.
However, to truly crack the racist infrastructure of our government, learning about the local level is not enough. We also need to learn about racism and must start this education early before it’s too late. For example, in my town, we learned about the Revolutionary War for three years but only spent six months for the civil war/civil rights movement. We should learn about mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and the criminalization of people of color. We should know how our judiciary systems truly work – leaving 97% of people in jails without a trial! With the knowledge of how racism is interlaced in our laws, we are able to identify racist practices in all levels of government. We can then see the racist threads interwoven in our local & national policies and make our voices heard. We can direct where funding goes and when: for example, allocating money for a firing range or public services. Using our knowledge of how local government works, we should push to have our communities include discussions about racism in our curriculums. Together, we can start enacting anti-racist laws, right at home.
Back in my town of Lexington, after the firing range bill was passed, a group of committed and informed individuals sent hundreds of emails to the selectmen as they urged thousands of other residents to sign a petition to repeal the policy. The bill was then quickly repealed and postponed indefinitely. At that time, I was a passive bystander, but after witnessing the real change brought by active citizens, I was inspired to join LexChat, an organization teaching elected officials about systemic racism in Lexington in summer of 2020. When we are given education about how we can get involved in our local government, paired with an awareness of racism, we can start to dismantle systemic racism piece by piece, from the bottom up. The true ‘remedy’ to racism lies not just in others creating policies or solutions, it lies within us: we need to educate ourselves and others, get involved, and make our voices heard.
Sources (links): Governing, Boston Globe, The Outline, New York Times.