Using the Past as a Tool
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In this entry, Jaron Balderes, Budget Analyst, City of Kansas City, MO, writes about the importance of working in the public sector.
What drives people to becoming a public administrator? That’s the question I typically am interested in knowing about someone in our line of work- what made you want to join our crazy-but-awesome profession? While I cannot answer for others who have walked along a similar path, I do know that a lived experience of inequality as a sexual minority has driven me closer to government, people, and creating understanding.
As a quick aside, it is important to the oncoming discussion to recognize that the allowance of social mobility and expression of LGBTQIA+ individuals has rapidly changed in America. It is near uncanny to me that in the short thirty years I’ve been alive, I have experienced serving in the military under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, witnessed the Defense of Marriage Act being passed, and then the subsequent repeal of these two policies and the broad extension of equality.
While these exciting turnarounds shook the social landscape of America and generally created a more inclusive society, they did not erase the hardships endured by individuals prior to these events, nor do they negate the struggles of others who have yet to achieve equality on its many scales. I can vividly remember what it was like growing up in the Midwest as a fringe personality amongst my peers and now reflect on how it has affected me as a person. How can past experiences such as these be synthesized with the massive wins in the social and political realms, and how can these insights be of use?
At this point, it is appropriate to return to the original question: What drives people to become a public administrator? For me, I have chosen this profession to better the commonwealth. I find it important to ensure the safety, wellbeing, and happiness of a community through good government. As such, It is important to me to remember what it was like for me to be on the outside of the “common” and disallowed to take part in the “wealth” of society. I learned the harsh realities of what it was like to exist outside of a perceived area that others inhabited with no easily navigable way for me to gain entrance. In other words, as an administrator, I now see it as part of my duty to make sure I am not only contributing the stability of society, but also look out for pitfalls of inequity within the system we work in every day.
So then, how does prior experience help identify and remediate these inequities? Now comes the crux of the issue: I have discovered through my experience of lived inequality that in order to better increase the commonwealth of a community, one must strive to be multifaceted in order to facilitate and combine the opinions of others. It means that a shared experience of being treated differently, unfairly, and uncharitably provides an inside world of knowledge that is virtually unknown and closed off to others who have never faced these same issues. It also means it is part of our charge to use this knowledge to develop a better community to live and work in. It means being flexible, understanding, patient when others cannot be, and managing differences to produce something valuable to society overall, even when viewpoints are disparate. After all, if we are the ones with this knowledge, it is necessary for us to be a driver of positive change. The proverbial weathered storm provides valuable perspective on in/out group dynamics, their repercussions, and how to avoid future polemical scenarios that can occur in a pluralistic society.
Generally, it is not easy to think about current public issues conjoined with personal experience, much less act on them in a manner that is productive. Many people find past or current experiences surrounding their sexual/gender identity to be painful or difficult to grapple with. It is far easier to indulge in anger or feel deflated when confronted by detractors. However, working in the public sector provides an elegant counterpoise for LGBTQIA+ folks who have the willpower and drive to utilize experience filtered through a lens of objectivity for the common good. Working for a public organization means positive change can be made from the inside out on numerous fronts, which then bleeds over to society at large.
Working at the local level of government is shaping up to be even more critical. As increased public participation becomes the norm for local politics and administration, it will take professionals with all types of experience to succeed that goes beyond a technical skill set. Deliberating with multiple groups over perceived limited resources and viewpoints requires flexibility, critical thinking, and finesse. All the capacities that go into scenarios like these were first encountered by virtue of negotiating with others over who we are. Personal challenges that were faced and overcome provides solid footing to work from to be successful and provide needed perspective on other pressing public issues.
If this seems like a tall order, I don’t disagree. However, with this wealth of experience, LGBTQIA+ people of this generation are primed to take part in the public realm of life precisely because of the scrutiny placed upon them. It would be wise to not let that slip by.