On Striving for a Democracy That We’ve Never Seen: An Interview with Keesha Gaskins-Nathan

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, program director, Democratic Practice – U.S. at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.  

On your website, you talk about advancing “a vital and inclusive U.S. democracy.” What does that look like?

It’s hard.  We’re striving for a democracy that we’ve never seen.  U.S. democracy was designed when the country was smaller, more homogenous and suffrage was very limited.  We also had a much smaller economy.  

Now, we have a massive and diverse economy and populace.  We stand by the principles that are espoused in the constitution but are still learning how to apply them to everybody in a meaningful way.  

We talk about having a vital democracy or one with “vitality” because we don’t want citizens who are staggering out of bed to engage in democracy.  We want a system that allows all people to jump out of bed to go for a ten-mile run to engage in democracy.

I love that. 

The democracy we envision is inclusive and representative of all.  That’s important because, in a true democracy, you’d don’t win all the time.  You don’t lose all the time either.  People need to believe that whether they win or lose, the system is fair.  

The problem, of course, is that for some folks, including Black Americans, the system isn’t fair.  When systems are rigged, it offends our sensibilities.  Folks say, “I’ve done what I was supposed to do.  I lived up to my part of this civil/moral contract. But the government, society, and other folks aren’t complying with or upholding their side of the bargain.” 

I understand why folks don’t want to be party to a broken system. It bothers me when, for example, people criticize Black folks for not voting. 

It’s not irrational to opt-out of a system that doesn’t work for you.  I would say that the systems of governance in the U.S. are not broken.  The systems and structures that govern our democracy are operating as they were designed.  For example, our capitalist economic system is built to extract resources – labor, time, and money- from Black and Brown folks. The outcomes that we see, i.e., the gross inequality between Black and white folks, shouldn’t surprise anyone. This doesn’t represent “brokenness” but rather a political and economic system that is designed to work for certain people and not others. 

What can Black women do about it?

My portfolio works on systems reform.  That said, right now, people are struggling to meet their basic needs. We need to help folks who are suffering right now. We have to address humanitarian needs first. However, we won’t see transformative changes until we address systemic challenges to our democracy and economy.  

Can you give me an example?

Sure. In advance of the 2020 Election, we’re asking how to structure elections so that we lower the burden on voters.  Even voter registration historically was a suppressive tool.  It wasn’t always required.  

By forcing folks to register to vote, we’re shifting the burden of civic engagement from the government to individuals.  Instead, we should modernize voting systems and ensure their security, increase opportunities to vote, and eliminate opportunities for voter suppression.  Reinstating the Voting Rights Act would be an important step.  

We also need to look at the relationship between money and representative democracy.  The monied class has a disproportionate influence on public policy in our democracy.  We’re seeing this with the COVID-19 crisis.  Those without wealth are impacted by the pandemic differently than those with wealth. The government is trying to shift the burden of the pandemic to employers by incentivizing them to keep employees on their payroll but it’s not working.  Meanwhile, the stimulus bill included additional tax breaks for the wealthy that were unrelated to the COVID-19 crisis while Black and Brown bodies are being sacrificed to keep “essential services” functioning. 

What keeps you hopeful?

I think this crisis is creating a recognition that things need to shift.  We’re realizing that the “emperor has no clothes.”  We’ve been told for so long by our government officials that we cannot afford to do things like provide people with affordable housing, free broadband, or better education.  Now, through the relief bills, we see that we can take care of people and that when motivated, the government can afford to move trillions of dollars into the economy to support people and businesses.  

The only way to fix our economy is by advancing a vital and inclusive democracy.  Democracy has to be the first mover and people make our democracy move. We are seeing big progress across the country based upon the work over the years to build power in people and communities. It’s an enormous opportunity and challenge because when the people stand up, and we see progress, power claps back.  For example, in South Dakota, voters enacted reforms to get big money out of politics by stopping the revolving door between politicians and industry.  But in the next legislative session, legislators nullified all those efforts. We continue to see those in power trying to undermine people’s efforts, but we also see people continuing to fight and take advantage of opportunities.  

People are leading through innovation.  For example, there aren’t that many avenues to build wealth in our society. I’m interested in alternative mechanisms for wealth-building like co-operative ownership. It can help to reframe what we mean when we talk about wealth.    

Rather than defining wealth only through the limited examples provided by capitalist models, we can define wealth based on what it provides.  Reframing helps us generate new ideas and solutions. There are old models that give us some guidance. For example, rent control in NYC operates like wealth by operation of law – allowing generational stability for housing but through rental units. For example, a person can live in a rent-controlled apartment in New York and pay as low as $600 per month for generations for a sizable apartment, yet not own the apartment they live in. The mechanism of rent control creates stability for families over generations.

Every day I am inspired by the leadership of our grantees. In fact, most of the organizations in my portfolio are led by women of color because they do the best work. It makes me hopeful to be able to support women of color in leading us to a new future. 

Finally, we know we cannot create structural change without addressing anti-Black racism. I’ve been able to bring that lens and a real power analysis to the Democratic Practice portfolio. 

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

Black women’s leadership is recognized and acknowledged everywhere we choose to lead – in politics, in corporations, and in civil society. And we have the decision-making power to make changes.





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