Social Sustainability: Building a more inclusive ASPA

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By Judi Brown, Presidio MPA Candidate

Published 3.28.13

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As a student of Presidio Graduate School’s MPA in sustainable management, I was uniquely positioned - along with my colleagues - to submit work for The American Society for Public Administration’s (ASPA) 74th Annual Conference this past week in New Orleans. The theme of the conference, Governance & Sustainability: Local Concerns, Global Challenges, offered various tracks for panel discussions, workshops and other activities regarding the public sector’s approach to sustainability. While there were some interesting and innovative presentations around fiscal and organizational sustainability, largely missing from the conversations was a systems perspective of ecological, economic and social concerns and how these various systems affect each concern, whether through tax increment financing, transit-oriented development, or organizational management. However, an important sustainability issue that had a prominent presence at this year’s ASPA was that of social equity in public administration and, in particular, what ASPA is doing to create more inclusive spaces for its members.

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(LtoR) Antoinette Samuel, Jose Luis Irizarry, Claire Mostel, Wally Swan and Erik Bergrud at ASPA 2013 in New Orleans.

Looking Back

ASPA leadership took a bold yet humble move to take the conversation inward and created a panel entitled Walking the Talk on Social Equity: ASPA and the Public Administration LGBT Community. Here, ASPA leadership as well as new and longtime members discussed ASPA’s policies thus far for the largest and most prominent organization for public administration. To get the conversation started, Wallace K. Swan of Hamline University in Minneapolis reflected on his very personal and sometimes heart-wrenching experience coming out in the public administration field. Some of his research has been around how mental health has been affected by states instituting discriminatory marriage statutes. He admitted that the emphasis in the gay rights movement on marriage is due in part to the deprivation of 1,138 rights enjoyed by heterosexuals through legally recognized marriage.

In 1992, Dr. Swan (also known as “Wally”) wrote a book entitled: Breaking the Silence: Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues in Public Administration. He explained that at the time of its publication, he was not allowed to add the word “transgender” to the title. In addition, throughout the following decades, he recognized resistance to inclusive policies by municipal governments, which was juxtaposed against corporations striving to have standardized rights across the country for its employees. Wally’s overall message was that discriminatory laws such as the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) are just plain cruel. Claire Mostel of Barry University added to Wally’s story by admitting that when he ran for ASPA president in 1990 and was “out,” she thought he was crazy, even though she herself was an out lesbian. This example of internalized acceptance of discrimination shows how far we’ve come in the last 20 years, and that was further illustrated by her story around creating ASPA’s first LGBT Section just last year. These special interest sections exist within ASPA to create more specialized networking, training and knowledge for members.

Moving Forward

ASPA’s executive director, Antoinette Samuel, took an organizational perspective by asking the question “what is ASPA’s commitment to diversity in its leadership and membership and, most important, the public administration profession?” She discussed the process around creating a strategic plan to adopt a policy of diversity “plus” inclusion, with emphasis on putting resources behind the plan instead of just making a statement. Her work helped to strengthen language in ASPA’s strategic plan around social equity and treating all persons with fairness, justice, equality and respect.

The last speaker, Jose Luis Irizarry, offered a perspective from ASPA's National Council. He called on ASPA to be on the front lines of supporting more socially just policies, including taking an anti-position on DOMA. He hypothesized that more local governments will step up if ASPA leads the way. Immediate past-president, Erik Bergrud, moderated the panel and ended the session with some hopeful thoughts. He admitted that it took ASPA 35 years to elect its first African-American president and that we still have a long way to go on inclusion. I asked the question about why the LGBT section had not yet taken inclusion a further step by adding to the alphabet soup of representing all LGBTQQIA members, but this appears to be a change the section will have to make on its own. He explained that we have to keep fighting the fight and walking the talk, ending with a simple question: “If we don’t stand for anything, what’s the point of being ASPA?”

Judi Brown, Presidio MPA Candidate

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