The importance of being heard in a democracy

The 2020 US Presidential election is less than 100 days away. As the date draws closer, I have observed an increasing number of politically-inclined friends, activists, scholars, and NGOs emphasize the paramount importance of the election as a potential savior for American democracy. In many ways, this is true. I understand just how high the stakes are and will cast my vote accordingly. But I also keep asking myself something: what kind of mature, institutional democracy, puts all its hopes for great change, the “restoration” of its very essence, in an election? In a person, or a group of people? Yes, the President and Congress exercise a significant level of executive and legislative power. Shaking things up, and away, from the far-right brand of Republicanism will be a massive boost to the integrity of our institutional democracy. But what will it do for the systemic economic and social issues we face? The ones that played a role in the favorability of that brand of Republicanism to begin with. A Biden Presidency will deliver us a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development with relevant credentials and subject matter expertise. That’s a huge step up, but will she also understand the way housing discrimination, lending practices, and the definition of the term “affordable” have relegated the same communities to the same levels of poverty for decades?

We need more than restoration. We need a rebuild in the form of substantive institutional reform. But we also need something simpler. Citizens, like those Americans adversely affected by discriminatory housing policies, need to feel more sincerely represented by the people they elect. All this got me thinking about a piece I wrote in January when I left my position at the Washington, DC Mayor’s Office of Community Relations. I shelved it because by the time I finished it, Corona had taken over the world. While this is still very much the case (as it should be), there are other issues competing for our mental bandwidth now, so I thought it would be a good time to share.

From the Middle East to the neighborhoods of Washington, DC: Why democracy is so hard

One of my first constituents, after I left a flourishing career in Middle East policy two years ago, was a senior citizen in her early 70s, who needed my help to resolve parking disputes with a member of Ivanka Trump’s cleaning staff. The bathroom in this rich neighborhood in Washington D.C. was humongous, larger than any bedroom I had ever seen, and her living room seemed more like a Louvre exhibit on Victorian furniture than a home.

The woman had asked me to visit in my capacity as a community relations specialist with the Washington DC Mayor’s Office because Ms. Trump’s cleaner was parking in front of her house. I took a moment to collect my thoughts. I had taken this job to be a force for good in my local community, what did that have to do with this super-rich woman and the parking habits of Jared and Ivanka’s household?

I came to this job from the area of Middle East policy, a field in which I spent about a decade of my life to pursue similar goals — to advocate for democracy and good governance across the region. I traveled to Cairo in 2014 not long after graduating from Syracuse University to work as a journalist, and then returned to the U.S. two years later to work at a think-tank in Washington, DC.

With the 2016 presidential election, everything changed for many hyphenated Americans like me who found themselves inspired to become politically engaged. It became clear that the U.S. was in need of much of the same work I went to do in the Middle East. I initially felt helpless as I read reports about Russian interference in our election, juggled phone calls with immigration lawyers concerned that the Muslim ban could adversely impact my wife’s ability to immigrate to the US, scrolled through vitriolic anti-immigrant and White nationalist sentiment, and watched violent demonstrations like Charlottesville. It was almost paralyzing.

I then thought about all my efforts in Middle East policy. My colleagues and I had spent years since the Arab uprisings pushing for change, and the reality was that save a few exceptions like Tunisia, little had changed, and in some cases, countries had backslid into even more authoritarianism.

If my goal was to push for principles of good governance, then it was time for me to focus on the United States, the country in which I was born and raised, and the supposed paragon of the democratic values I was passionate about. I decided to start small, in my city of Washington, DC.

I walked into the Mayor’s Office of community relations and services with indomitable enthusiasm. Where were the citizens? Can I meet all of my constituents individually? It was as if I had become spiritual and that my god, an omnipotent public service deity, required me to show my appreciation to it through this job.

I was assigned to half the neighborhoods in DC’s Ward Two, which is comprised of a little bit of everything: the hip 14th Street corridor, home to some of the city’s hottest restaurants and nightlife establishments, the upscale residential/commercial/historic neighborhood of Georgetown, and the still more upscale residential, embassy-laden neighborhood of Sheridan-Kalorama. In the beginning, I had a lot of moments like that one in the mansion-bathroom.

The issues I’d be dealing with were a distant cry from my fight for democratic values in the Middle East. First was the fact that I couldn’t really relate — I grew up as a middle-class Arab-American, the son of Egyptian immigrants, raised in the suburbs of Richmond. I didn’t know anything about cleaning staff and contractors; I didn’t care about a business dumping its grease down a sewage drain, or a rat scurrying across the street in an alleyway. If someone didn’t get my trash today, then they’d get it tomorrow, I’d sooner squish the garbage with my hands and look for space in a neighbor’s can than call the city about it. The second was outright disagreement: I didn’t always feel that the needs of my constituents aligned with my goals to effectuate change through good governance.

But I was wrong.

There is a simple fact about good governance that sustained my faith in public service: people just want to be heard. Whether Federal, State, or Local, most citizens conceive of the government as a faceless behemoth, devoid of character, overloaded with bureaucracy, and hurling forward on an autopilot that precludes its ability to dynamically see and interact with citizens. It didn’t matter whether I could relate or if I agreed.

Ward Eight or Ward Two, Richmond or Cairo, all citizens have the same core desire from their government to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. That desire materializes in the form of protesting military rule in Egypt, advocating for human development initiatives and investments East of the River in Wards Seven and Eight, and yes, even a more transparent and efficient process for brick sidewalk repair in Georgetown. And let’s be clear: the degree of the severity of quality-of-life needs of Ward Two residents pales in comparison to the degree of severity of quality-of-life needs of those communities East of the River, where the life expectancy of some neighborhoods is sometimes ten-plus years lower than parts of Ward Two.

A functioning democracy must give all its citizens the sense that it hears them if it plans to effectuate high-level change. If citizens view the government as a credible steward of their tax dollars, then we are better positioned to work together on a vision that strategically responds to the needs of underserved communities. This isn’t a call to give all communities everything they want. The government may not be able to give Ivanka Trump’s neighbor the additional no parking sign she requested, but that neighbor is more likely to continue supporting the administration at large if the government engages her.

And that realization on my part made the job a lot more fun.

I focused on three principles related to citizens’ right to be heard: relationships, responsiveness, and accountability. I built dynamic relationships with a diverse network of citizens. I met with people for no other purpose than to get to know them. I asked business owners to share contact info for their favorite customers. I asked customers to share contact info for their favorite community leaders. I asked community leaders to tell me what their concerns and priorities were for their neighbors, their schools, and their public spaces. I put together my own personalized weekly updates with this list of ever-growing contacts, sending out emails that detailed my activities across their neighborhoods. I even convinced my wife to move to Ward Two so I could take on the perspective of my neighbors and interact with them more naturally. So when residents on the condo board in a high-rise adjacent to a Whole Foods grocery store went directly to the Mayor with their unanswered complaints about illegal construction, noise or light pollution and management’s unresponsiveness, I used the relationships I built to follow up. I briefed the director responsible for resolving this matter who asked me to convene reconciliation meetings between the neighbors and the grocery store, which re-established communication lines that addressed their issues.

I was responsive. If someone contacted me with a concern, outlandish or reasonable, I followed up within 24 hours. Whether it was about Chechen terrorists infiltrating the Georgetown library or the crosswalk in front of an elementary school in need of a repaint, I always routed it to a city agency and checked back in both with the citizens and the agency contact until the matter was resolved or all methods of resolution were fully exhausted. When I noted agency-unresponsiveness to citizens concerned about public school access to field space, I connected with that agency’s chief of staff and ultimately formed a positive personal and professional relationship with him. We held different perspectives, and he was much more senior than I, but we worked together as partners to deliver valuable responses to the community. This approach ultimately earned me a seat at the table when the agency directors and the Mayor’s general counsel team were asked to brief her on the situation. In the end, the neighbors did not get the resolution they wanted, but I advocated for their opportunity to express their concerns to the Mayor, and they were appreciative of that. As I noted, it isn’t about giving people what they want or whether or not one agrees. Everyone is entitled to engagement.

I was accountable in delivering results to neighbors with concerns about city services. I hassled “core team” counterparts at government agencies like the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Department of Public Works to get to the bottom of systemic missed trash collection, parking violations, or road repairs. Sometimes this didn’t result in much, but other times, I got back to citizens with long-term solutions to these problems: the parking sign was actually overshadowed by a tree that needed pruning, or the trash bin being used was actually non-regulation and it had never been reported up the chain. If a neighborhood felt that the material DDOT chose to conduct certain sidewalk repairs didn’t match the previously-established guidelines for “historic” material, then I pressed DDOT over and over again to return to the community and hold a dialogue on alternatives; because ultimately the repairs still needed to happen.

So it didn’t matter that I grew up in a middle-class suburban family that mostly shopped at Food Lion, that I never lived in upscale urban neighborhoods, or that I didn’t necessarily agree with what was deemed “historic,” or recognize the importance of a historic designation to begin with. My public service deity had committed me to those three principles that transcended my progressive vision and personal experience.

As a result, I quickly established a reputation as someone who could get things done. I received accolades from neighbors and a plethora of praise and awards from Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and Citizens Associations. The Mayor’s team valued my service, and I had the privilege of connecting with the Mayor prior to my departure from the office. I say this not just to brag a little, but also to make a point: in public service one cannot overstate the value of ensuring that citizens feel heard. I walked out of the Mayor’s office knowing that I have positively impacted the way those communities view their government.

I have been in the workforce for a little over 10 years. I have switched career tracks four times, lived in five cities, and two countries. I have done this in search of a professional path that will fulfill my desire to be a force for the values that I believe in: inclusivity, human rights, social and economic equity, and democratic pluralism. It’s true that we need high-level, overarching visions to build a society rooted in these values. In the U.S., we’ve seen these visions sweep the nation since the time of the American Revolution, often coming at great social, economic, and political cost, but ultimately propelling our country in the right direction. But what I’ve now learned is that we stand better positioned to get a diverse range of individuals behind our vision, when our citizens truly feel that the government works for them. It is the citizens who are our bosses at the end of the day.

Whether it’s Cairo, DC, New York, or the Middle East and United States writ large, I’ll never forget the importance of the right to be heard, even if you live in a Louvre exhibit and use an oversized bathroom.

Reflections on government, culture, politics, and society.