You are here: Home / Black Lives Matter and Civic Engagement

Black Lives Matter and Civic Engagement

As the U.S. comes to terms with systemic racism and inequality in the wake of George Floyd's death, we put together a list of FAQs about how to be civically engaged during this time and show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Thank you to Scott Pflumm, a graduate student at Penn State, for many of these excellent questions.

How does someone who has not suffered discrimination constructively engage in this topic outside of personal discussions with friends and family?

Protest demands a hearing. It does not usually demand an answer, and rarely a specific one. The first response from those on the receiving end is to accept that a protest is supposed to make you uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, it isn’t really a protest. Then listen faithfully to the claims being made. Then assessment, recognizing our own ignorance and distance from the claims being made. Then respond. 

Is it constructive for a citizen to simply write to elected officials demanding change without specifying particular policies? 

Absolutely. Civic demand for action does not mean the citizen has to write policy. As options emerge, then it is totally appropriate for a citizen to evaluate them, but for now, telling an official that you want action that changes the status quo is completely legitimate. And it works.  

Are there such things as essential key points that a constructive message should contain if a protester at a rally is approached by a journalist for comment? 

Saying that you are here in solidarity with the protesters, that you demand equality and justice for all citizens is sufficient and wholly legitimate. In 1968 the Memphis sanitation workers carried signs that said “I am a man.” What answer could be better than that? 

Beyond writing to elected officials and attending demonstrations what are other efficient strategies a citizen should adopt to address systemic societal problems? What if a citizen is balancing family, work, and other volunteer and civic engagements? 

Do what you want to do. Do what you are compelled to do. Do what you are good at. Do what you have time to do. There are lots of ways to contribute and the right approach looks different for everyone. No one has to do them all. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

 What checklist of introspective questions would guide a citizen on whether to remain quiet and listen for the time being versus speaking prematurely and perhaps counterproductively?

Here are a few, adapted from our colleagues at the James Madison University Center for Civic Engagement:

  • What changes in our daily lives can individuals make to be an antiracist?

  • How do we build sustainable collective action to change racist systems that surround us?

  • What are important policy changes that individuals can advocate to advance racial justice?

  • What responsibility do Penn State and other institutions of higher education have to support anti-racist efforts in our community?

  • How has Penn State and other institutions of higher education contributed to racism and white supremacy?

  • What steps can Penn State and other institutions of higher education take to eliminate policies and practices have that contributed to racial inequities on campus and beyond?

  • How can Penn State and other institutions of higher education hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion?

  • How should Penn State and other institutions of higher education address the issue of campus buildings named for slave-owners and prominent racists?

In a new era when going door-to-door with flyers may not be advised for the time being, what tools should concerned citizens use? What overarching mindset or strategies should be considered in non-face-to-face engagements?

Democracy is a social practice, and right now the social part is compromised. Lots of people are asking these questions. So far, there are not a lot of good answers. Ignoring the public health crisis is not one of them.