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Claiming One’s Seat: 65 Years After Rosa Parks

December 1, 2020

As I reflect on this tumultuous year, I am focused on the diverse coalition that participated in a resistance movement led by Black young adults in response to the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, sadly, many more. These inspiring acts of protest are the active seeds of democracy in action, a mobilization of ideas and voices that leads to policy change, community action,  and shifts in public opinion. 

December 1 is a significant date to look back on both the protests of 2020 and the longer shadow of racial history in this country. On this day in 1955, another act of resistance sparked a movement that forever changed our democracy. Civil rights leader Rosa Parks’s action of defying the racist policy of bus segregation in Alabama sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that led to the dismantling of racist policies at the federal level and in the national conscience.  

At the core of these movements is the idea that a functioning democracy and all its benefits should work for everyone. At Public Agenda, we are dedicated to this idea of an inclusive and equitable democracy. In order to make that a reality it is more important than ever that we reflect ever more deeply on the role that equity–racial and otherwise–should play in our work. Over the past five years our public engagement team has been integrating equity into our engagement work,  throughout the country and in our home base, the New York metro area. We have done this, for example, through our community-led resiliency planning work in largely Black immigrant communities in Brooklyn that were devastated by Superstorm Sandy; in our scan of resident’s perceptions of civic engagement in the ethnically diverse Norwood section of the Bronx; and, by holding trainings for New York City government and nonprofit leaders on integrating equity, diversity and inclusion into their public engagement initiatives. 

In my work on these programs and with communities, this year of protests and the events of December 1, 1955 weigh on my mind. It will be years before we truly know the impact of the recent protests. But immediately, and not unlike the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the protests have forced us to reckon with the far-reaching damage of the pernicious systemic racism that remains deeply embedded in America’s institutions and culture. Sixty-five years after Rosa Parks claimed her seat, passionate, engaged Americans carry on the fight to give everyone a meaningful seat at the table. As long as that fight continues, I know I have work to do. 

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Nicole Cabral

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