Community Policymaking: Cameryn Okeke, Vera Institute for Justice, and Saadiq Bey, Kings County DA’s Office

‘If we are trying to transform public life, we have to transform the process of making policy. Equitable and just policy has to have a democratic process where people are seen and heard.’

Cameryn Okeke, a senior program associate at the Vera Institute for Justice, and Saadiq Bey, a former Vera research associate who is now chief of young adult diversion programs at the Kings County District Attorney’s office, spoke at a Penn Public Health seminar on the question, “How do we invest in transformative communities?” They answered not by talking about specific policies, but about how policies get made and who gets to make them. Here they go deeper in describing transformative processes for developing community policy and investments. 

Cameryn: It’s hard to call something transformative if you’re doing the same thing that’s always been done. If we are trying to transform public life, we have to transform the process of making policy and how we evaluate policy impacts. Transformation starts from the ground up. Equitable and just policy has to have a democratic process where people are seen and heard in the process.

We all want outcomes where people are happier and healthier, self-determined, have a community, are grounded. You can’t do that without talking to people about what they want and need. 

It’s extremely hard to know how policies are going to work and how they will impact people, especially if you don’t live in community with folks impacted by the policies. Government is structured so that the people who make decisions are not proximate to the people who are impacted by them. 

The people least proximate, with the least stake in the game, the power brokers, often have no clue what it’s like for a lot of people to get from point A to point B on a regular basis. Living and working in these communities, you’re proximate. If you’re impacted by it, you probably have some good ideas, some credibility around what could help to create a safe environment for people to self-actualize.

Saadiq: Transformation is stepping away from the norm, and it’s got to be from the ground up. By, with, and for our people. Historically folks have never played straight with us. My experience is that far too many European social scientists and researchers come into the community with no regard for the struggles or the lives that people walk. Over a decade of doing research and writing, that’s what I see. 

I know you want to get your data, but when people bring up other things, we got to listen to what they say. If you want to be in it for the long haul, you got to accept that your timeline, your workplan has no relevance. To foster transformation, I got to be able to see the humanity of that person and not damage their well-being to just answer my 10 questions that pretty much point to pathological failure. That ain’t uplifting at all. 

There’s a lot of money being built up, and I get a lot of calls, like, “Do you have some hurting people I can talk to so I can write this paper?” I’m definitely a gatekeeper. I’m leveraging my relationships, my credibility and my community. If I’m putting my word on this, it’s got to be correct. I want to make sure I’m not putting myself out there and giving my information and they’re doing nothing but damaging people. I need to be a beacon of hope.

Cameryn: If you want to transfer power to folks who want to make policy, relationship is key. If you need to get that feedback loop, that’s about bringing together a group of people and meeting with them not to extract information but to invest in them. If you’re not in an accountable relationship, you won’t hear what people really know and think. Honesty is vulnerability, and people don’t trust people they don’t know.

When I started at Vera, I was supposed to check in with Saadiq one time about a project. It ended up that we talked every week about our lives, who we are, what we’re about. That’s the proximity and trust you have to build to give and get real feedback. 

You might be hearing from the community, “You’re doing this that’s fucked up.” But the feedback you need is about where you are doing well and not doing well. You need both to make a committed effort to improve, and you don’t get that from people who don’t care about you. 

We can bring ourselves into willing accountability with folks by humbling ourselves honestly and taking feedback. If I come into a place, if I’m transparent about what I do and do not know, if I’m vulnerable and consistent, it can happen. It takes longer. The time horizon is not convenient to capitalism. 

It’s about listening. People have a deep need to be heard and to be seen. It’s an important skill to hear someone’s truth that may not be your own. There has to be quiet in me to hear what people need and want and to quiet my judgment. If a policy is going to impact people who are different from you, and you can’t make space to understand people whose experience is beyond your own, it’s impossible for those policies to do good.

Saadiq: Participatory Action Research (PAR) project can be transformative in itself. Critical consciousness is a byproduct of real PAR. It’s a journey that we’re all going on. It has to be that we thought we knew something and what we believe now is something different. You shouldn’t do this work if you’re expecting to stay the same.

Cameryn: The research design itself is tricky. You need to focus on structures and individuals. If I talk to people about why they carry guns, but not why we glorify gun violence in America and the ways America equates guns with masculinity, I’m leaving out a systemic problem. But if you angle your work around the way the structure builds violence and an individual creates violence, you’ll get to the root. You need both. 

You could create this incredible participatory project, paying for people’s time, taking care of their kids, creating deep relationship and yet if the subject matter is still asking people how broken they are and that’s it, there’s no hope. As a researcher, you need to name and check your biases, and you need to have imagination with people in the study. 

Saadiq: You got to have self-love to do this work. You need to make sure you got your shit together before you try to help people, or it will mess you up even more. It won’t help you or them get better. You have to be doing some healing work yourself. 

Cameryn and I are on similar journeys. We check in with each other the regular. Not only do I have a better self-interest in myself, I’m transformed in what I want for other people. I have to have some hope and a possibility that this could work for them.

Cameryn: To get to self-love, that interpersonal work, it’s something researchers never do. It’s like, You don’t have to be honest about where you are, you’re safe from vulnerability. But I have to be able to love that part of myself, my 18-year-old self, if I’m going to be with people who remind me of that part of myself. That rejection and trauma. You’re saying, “I’m going to help these kids,” but if you don’t like that part of yourself, if you’re rude to that part of yourself, it comes out. 

And to experience joy you also have to feel grief. We have to be able to respond in a full-bodied way to the depths of sorrow, loss, grief to also feel joy. 

If you haven’t done that work, does that mean you can’t do anything for the movement? Well, maybe you shouldn’t have that position of power, if you still struggle with the part of yourself that’s powerless. Ease up on having that power. If you can’t come to that conclusion, people can offer feedback, and help you through the grief from that realization. 

Saadiq: In that accountability I find another depth of layer about myself that’s transformed.  When I have the endorsement of the community, and they bear witness to the vision, nothing compares to that. 

Cameryn: America doesn’t believe that people who have power should be accountable. To be able to give an account for the reasons of your actions. To own them, and the impacts of them. It’s something that we’re so unaccustomed to. 

And I will be held to account in a way that white folks won’t. I’ll be held accountable for what I’ll do around my community. I’ve already got stuff on the line when I started as a Black, queer person. People I know will experience the ramifications, and so will I.

– Reporting by Keyna Franklin and Nora McCarthy

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