By Anita Banerji & Paul O’Connor
In 2020 we watched as a nonchalant white policeman kneed the life out of George Floyd. We watched as COVID-19 laid bare the deep disparities in public health, public education and public safety. We watched authorities armor up like Darth Vader en masse for a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and then fail to show up in the face of white supremacist extremists storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, two weeks before a new presidential administration was to be inaugurated.
On that day the democratic principles that we as Americans hold so firmly were shattered before our eyes, as we and the world watched the Capitol overrun, endangering Congressional officials and staff on both sides of the aisle. The damage to democracy that we witnessed that day has only been made graver and more explicit through the evidence presented in the most recent Senate impeachment trial. At this juncture it is critical for us to converse openly and truthfully on the issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, if our American democracy is to be a stronger, more united entity.
Public Narrative is holding and facilitating the tough conversations we must have about “the past we step into and how we repair it,” as Amanda Gorman said in her inaugural poem.
The organization has spent much of the last year re-inventing itself and deepening its impact as a convener of fellow community-focused organizations. In 2020, Public Narrative touched more than 1,100 nonprofit leaders, creating platforms to tell their stories of seeding long-term systemic change in Chicago’s historically disinvested communities. Among those joining as partnering organizations were the Obama Foundation, Thrive Chicago, the Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities (ARCC) at Northwestern University, and the Chicago Police Department’s Youth District Advisory Council (YDAC).
Public Narrative, a 501(c)3, was founded 32 years ago as the Community Media Workshop, on the principle that American democracy requires a free, informed press and an educated public. It has worked for decades on news media literacy and helping communities tell their stories. Today that focus includes supporting boys and young men of color in shaping their own narratives, and shaping the broader narrative around diversity, equity and inclusion.
In its current three areas of programmatic focus – public health, public safety, and public education – Public Narrative staff have helped youth and police learn to talk to each other frankly, are working on more effective and equitable ways of communicating about health and health research, and are helping to address persistent opportunity gaps facing young people of color. Through Public Narrative’s 2020 Census outreach efforts over the past two years, we witnessed the need for even more federal resources to be administered equitably across hard-to-count communities. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis it is harder still to reach communities that need access to accurate information regarding the vaccines, their risks and health benefits.
In 2020 we finally said “no more” to systemic racism and unchallenged white supremacy. At no point in time has it been more imperative that we as a society have hard, messy conversations to establish a more just and equitable democracy. Looking ahead in 2021, we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Anita Banerji and Paul O’Connor are board members of Public Narrative. Chicago’s initial State of the Public Narrative will be presented Feb. 20. Click here for details and registration to this free, online event.