On Saturday, January 21st several FFI staff members participated in the Women’s March in Washington, DC and in sister marches in Boston and Greenfield, Massachusetts and in New York City. The pictures and reflections posted on FFI’s Twitter and Facebook page are testimony of the multitude of reasons people marched that day, including for the rights of undocumented immigrants, for the rights of individuals with a disability, and for the right to have control over our own body. I was in New York City with hundreds of thousands of people who were marching, standing, and dancing together for equality and freedom as we made our way west on 42nd Street and north on 5th Ave or through adjacent side streets and avenues when that crowd was too robust to move. While we were a part of the millions of people around the world who marched for a myriad reasons that day, the future of our democracy is not teetering on whether or not we all show up when it is time to march for change in public policy. Our democracy depends on our willingness to pay attention to and not be agnostic about how our individual decisions can affect the wellbeing of others. Colloquially, wellbeing is often described as what can occur after one has moved through the hierarchy of needs—physiological, safety, belonging/love, esteem, and self-actualization—psychologist Abraham Maslow identified. Wellbeing, however, is not achieved when one is able to maintain a state of self-actualization nor is it a destination point. It is a state of being that requires the weighing of assets and consideration of tradeoffs. Our collective wellbeing depends on the decisions we make as individuals as we weigh assets and tradeoffs.
The Sunday before the Women’s March, on January 15th, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned 88 years old if he were alive. Would he think the marches would result in meaningful positive change for the marginalized? What assets and tradeoffs would he argue need to be weighed? Would he be skeptical? The August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom he helped lead included a “What We Demand” statement with ten points including “comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress—without compromise or filibuster—to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote.” The March resulted in increased momentum for the civil rights movement, which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. While it is too early to know what the Women’s marches will produce, what I do know is that despite federal legislation and resources, we are still fighting—over 50 years later—for many of the demands from the March on Washington to be met. Although according to the University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project’s 2014 report Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future that “there has not been a major national study on school segregation, its costs, and solutions for almost 50 years, since the 1967 report requested by President Johnson, Racial Isolation in the Public Schools,” it has been argued that schools in the United States were more racially segregated in 2015 than they were in the 1960s. Civil rights legislation was signed 10 years after the US Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka. Brown vs. The Board of Education overturned the 1896 US Supreme Court decision in the Homer A. Plessy v. John H. Ferguson case, which upheld state racial segregation laws (e.g., Jim Crow Laws) of public systems including education and transportation. Racial segregation under the ideology of “separate but equal” systems was standard doctrine in laws across the US until the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision. In addition to the consequences of legally sanctioned racial segregation, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, in the The New York Times Magazine article, “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” details how individual decisions made by well-meaning individuals about where to live and which school to send their child to can affect other students’ and families’ access to opportunity and various forms of capital—including credential, cultural, and social. Because of individual decisions that uphold unjust systems, coupled with other mechanisms such as discriminatory employment and housing policies and practices, some schools in the US are more racially and economically isolated than they were when the marchers demanded the “desegregation of all school districts in 1963.” More specifically, in the interview “How The Systemic Segregation Of Schools Is Maintained By ‘Individual Choices’,” on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Hannah-Jones argues that individuals can make good decisions for their children and other people’s children too. Making those decisions requires weighing assets and tradeoffs, which can cause tension when trying to reconcile one’s beliefs and values with one’s actions. Being willfully blind to the collective results of our individual decisions does not invalidate school demographic data that reveals that we are making decisions based not only on what we desire for our own children but also based on our beliefs about other people and their children. We are making decisions that secure or maintain advantage for our own child while ignoring or being indifferent about systems that are unjust for other people’s children. No matter what the circumstances, we all want the same thing—wellbeing for ourselves and for those we care about. The harsh reality, however, is we are maintaining a country that is not only segregated educationally but also racially, economically, politically, residentially, and socially. Being civically engaged is not the same as resisting nor is resisting the same as offering alternatives to systems that value the wellbeing of one group at the expense of another. In “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” Dr. King wrote: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” In short, even the most social justice-minded individuals might be making decisions that are contributing to the country being more separate and more inequitable.
In a recent letter to allies, “Increasing Access to Wellbeing in Small Spaces and Interactions,” Katya Fels Smyth, FFI’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer, reflecting on the legacy of Dr. King on his national holiday, wrote about the ways she can increase access to wellbeing for others in her day to day interactions. Our collective right to wellbeing is dependent upon us not only resisting the policies, procedures, practices, and norms that do not uphold and/or that undermine the mandates of the Constitution, but it is also dependent upon our commitment to making individual decisions and taking deliberate actions that increase access to wellbeing for some of the individuals and groups of people we marched as a member of or in solidarity with. We cannot wait. We must act with urgency and have the moral fortitude to not only speak truth to power while we march but also while we make individual decisions. Onward?
La Tonya Green, PhD is FFI’s Director of Evidence and Knowledge. She is responsible for generating knowledge and evidence about the applicability and effectiveness of the Full Frame Approach and the Five Domains of Wellbeing.