We Need More Steel Pans in Policy

Thursday, May 30, 2024

We Need More Steel Pans in Policy
By: Blayne Fergus, Public Service Scholar, Hunter College and Philanthropy New York

Blayne served as an Associate for Philanthropy New York's Public Policy & Collaboration team during the 2023 - 2024 academic year through her involvement in Hunter College's Public Service Scholars Program. 

My friends and I have this running joke about people from Flatbush living a life that only consists of Soca, beef patties, and fetes. And while the occasional Flatbushian like Shyne or the late Michael K. Williams advocate politically, many in Little Caribbean are confined to dollar vans and steel pans. So when I, a proud Flatbushian, walked through the Russell Senate Building last February, it felt unreal.

I've taken many trips to Washington D.C., but this visit in February with Philanthropy New York for Foundations on the Hill (FOTH) was the first time I really felt like I was in the nation’s capital. As I walked through Senate hallways and across the sidewalks surrounding the Capitol dome, an overwhelming feeling of alienation took over. A sensation of unworthiness set in during our meetings with congressional officials, partly because Black people, while affected heavily by policy, rarely get the chance to even see the Capitol, and because I have recognized that in countless cases, Black people with degrees and tenure don't get these experiences either. It felt like I should be asking myself, “What am I doing this for, I understand the role of policy, but what will be my impact here?”  

As a Senior participating in the Public Service Scholar Program at Hunter College, I found myself pondering the program's significance in the same manner. For over four decades, the Public Service Scholars Program has been providing juniors and seniors at Hunter College the opportunity to play pivotal roles within the public service and non-profit sectors in New York City and beyond. I began the program with a narrow view of policy work but radical beliefs about government, society, and politics, so I believed it was a great opportunity for me as I think about life after college. Within the last 8 months of my placement at Philanthropy New York, my knowledge of local city and wider federal policy has blossomed and become fruitful. On top of that, learning about the ins and outs of nonprofits, especially philanthropy, has been rewarding to experience. The one thing that always feels odd to me about policy work, is that it's about logistical work and not always grassroots action. As someone who has had previous experience in grassroots operations, I felt logistical change wasn't beneficial. But this trip to D.C. during Foundations on the Hill showed me firsthand how policy and philanthropy collaborate to advocate for marginalized communities like mine. FOTH, an annual event where philanthropic leaders from diverse backgrounds convene in Washington, D.C. to meet directly with members of Congress and engage in constructive discussions on pressing societal issues, was a memorable and enlightening learning endeavor. This experience underscored the importance of such events in ensuring support and representation for individuals facing imposter syndrome, individuals who may be low-income, or those who are people of color. It can be as simple as attending working group meetings or speaking to legislative aides as a constituent to aim for more for those who work in nonprofits. Within the experience at FOTH I recognized the grassroots of policy for me is advocacy. 


And we're at a time where advocacy is necessary on all fronts. The policy space is one that I find fitting and necessary but with Affirmative Action being overturned and attacks on DEI becoming so prevalent in southern states, the average young academic of color may be slowly disappearing from the policy space. There is even a fear within youth that career growth will be stunted due to all these forms of suppression in the U.S., especially those who are aiming for careers in the non-profit sector. While Gen Z is one of the most active and outspoken generations of all time, there is a looming idea that our voices will be removed, especially when there have been continuous attacks on the spaces where voices are heard the loudest. 

But being on Capitol Hill removed these ominous thoughts from me for at least a quick second. From waking up to hear Nicole Austin-Hillery give a sermon on her being in my position and then climbing the ranks to take her seat at the table. From stepping into the meeting at Adriano Espaillat's office, another person who based on his background wouldn't be offered a seat at the table, and seeing the Dominican flag raised high and his diverse team of staffers that were from Brooklyn. From walking into Rep. Hakeem Jeffries' office and seeing a steel pan in a hard case with a Trinidadian flag. From seeing the Virgin Islands flag in front of Stacy Plaskett's office to seeing the Pan-African Flag in front of Jamaal Bowman's office. And even sitting down over dinner with Philanthropy New York members allowed me to recognize my capacity to evoke change and being able to ascend. FOTH aided me in realizing my rightful place at the table, affirming that policy and advocacy efforts ensure a seat remains vacant for people of color, always.