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On Centering Black Folks in the Policymaking Process: An Interview with Jessica Fulton

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Jessica Fulton, vice president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, America’s Black think tank. Founded in 1970 and concerned about the future of African American communities, the Joint Center became the policy hub of government officials and public intellectuals such as Maynard Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, John Hope Franklin, Mary Frances Berry, and William Julius Wilson. Fulton engages in research and analysis to identify policies that advance the socioeconomic status of the Black community and also manages the Joint Center’s Policy Incubator. 

How did you get engaged in public policy?

Growing up, I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as public policy but I did have questions about how the world worked. For example, I remember wondering why the environment in the school in my neighborhood was one way, while my cousins in different neighborhoods had completely different experiences.  It wasn’t that their parents worked any less hard, or that they were less deserving, but I know that some of my family members didn’t get the same kind of education I did. I was curious, but I didn’t know how to change that.

I actually started college as a chemistry major and went to Dillard University in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina hit.  I think that’s when I realized that the government treats poor Black people terribly, and I wanted to do something to fix that.  

After leaving school in New Orleans, I took an economics class.  I realized that there are people who get to decide what the interest rates are, how many people have jobs, and how much money people spend and save. My thought was, I want to do that so I can help the people that I really care about. I had already been planning to transfer to a school in Chicago. Once I got there, I just started to cold call and email people to figure out how to get a job in public policy.

How do folks get into public policy?

Unfortunately, internships are still probably the best way to get engaged in a career in this space. I took on a few unpaid internships when I was getting started. I think organizations are really starting to step up now though and pay their interns. For folks who are interested in this field, pay attention to the different think tanks – what they are writing about and saying. Try to get to know people in the field–they may have ideas for how you can get involved. 

You work at the Joint Center which is also known as America’s Black Think Tank.  What is a think tank and what does the Joint Center do?  

Think tanks can take many forms. At the Joint Center, our goal is to create and elevate data and solutions to improve the lives of Black folks. We do this by investigating barriers for Black folks, uncovering data, and elevating solutions. 

For example, our Hill Staff Diversity program documents the diversity of staff on the Hill through data. Before we got involved, this was something that folks weren’t tracking at the federal government level. But by simply showing what’s happening, people pay more attention to the issue and seek out opportunities to diversify staff. We’re also thinking about the future of Black workers, and centering Black folks in conversations about the way the labor market is changing and how it will affect Black workers and their families. We’ve launched a tech policy program to ensure that Black workers are protected from potentially harmful technologies like facial recognition and big data. We’re also expanding our economic policy program to make sure that Black communities don’t get left behind as the economy recovers. 

At the Joint Center, one of our central values is that Black communities matter.  I say communities vs. community because Black people are not homogenous and one of our goals is to bring different groups of Black folks together to identify solutions that work for all of us.

How can Black women get involved with your work?

First, they can stay abreast of our work by signing up for our newsletter.  Second, they can join our convenings and events.  We’re going to be hosting more convenings over the next 1 – 2 years to bring folks together to talk about and get to solutions.  Third, we do a lot of listening to folks via our survey shop

Listening is really important and helps to inform our thinking, and we care a lot about paying attention to the work people are doing in their communities.

What does success look like for the Joint Center?

Success for us is inviting Black folks into the policymaking process and providing policymakers with the data and framework they need to center our issues.

We see what happens when Black folks are not centered.  For example, the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) disadvantaged Black business owners because of the way it was structured. The PPP prioritized relief for business owners with employees.  Unfortunately, we know that the majority of Black business owners don’t have employees.  Also, PPP was facilitated via banks and many Black business owners have challenging relationships with mainstream banks.  The structure of the program left many Black business owners out.

That’s really frustrating and goes to the point of why we need more Black folks at the table to create these policies.  What are the key issues you are thinking about or working on right now?

I’m thinking a lot these days about the intersection of COVID-19 and work.  I’m a Great Recession kid.  I graduated from college in the middle of the Great Recession so I know what it was like to come of age when there was a dearth of jobs.  I’m worried that workers of all ages, who have been laid off during the pandemic won’t remain whole because we don’t have the infrastructure in place to support them. 

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

My grannies and great grandmothers!

I grew up in the Midwest. But my family is from the South where they were sharecroppers. They were determined to leave the South so that they could keep their families safe.  They are heroic women.  I can’t imagine what they went through.  One way that I honor and give back to them is through my work.

Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s December 2021 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Black women just get to rest.  We can sit down with a glass of champagne or sparkling cider and rest and feel safe and comfortable. 

We feel taken care of.

Amen.

Jocelyn

 

 

 

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