Amy Whitfield: the power of language and history in policy making

Evaluation Lab News

Posted: Oct 28, 2021 - 12:00am

Amy Whitfield, the Executive Director of the NM Office of African-American Affairs, did not start her professional career with a clear idea of what she wanted to do. For a time, she thought she would be a professional cheerleader, and when that did not work out, she landed in social work, but it was still some time before she discovered the kind of social work she wanted to do. She found that she was interested in macro-level social work and eventually found her calling in policy and systems change. 

Ms. Whitfield shared with the students that one big thing that she has learned that influences change, is language. It is vital to approach issues from a strength-based lens. If you spend all your time focusing on the problems within a community in order to make your point that the community needs aid and new policies, you are silencing that community’s voice and can even cause long-lasting damage. The point of policy should not be to change a community but to support and uplift it.

Policies create new norms and then those norms trickle down and have a lasting impact. Ms. Whitfield explained that “very often the way we think gets changed just by a policy.” For example, the Maternal Mortality Review Committee by law reserved one seat for a person nominated by the Office of African-American Affairs (OAAA) and one seat for a person nominated by the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA).  This arrangement, Ms. Whitfield explained, is not only tokenizing but also extremely off-putting because how can one person be the voice of a large and diverse group of people, and, moreover, who would want to sign up to take that on?  OAAA and DIA pushed for legislation to add a second seat for each agency, and this year OAAA received more than 50 applicants to serve on the committee from the Black community. People are more willing to step up when they are do not have to do it alone, and just by implementing a new policy, the norm has changed, and this will trickle down.

Along with positive changes from policies trickling down, a less desirable, but common, outcome of policy is unintended consequences for marginalized communities. Ms. Whitfield told the class that a great way to discover what these consequences might be, is to look back at history. She explained, “there are very few original ideas out there, if someone thinks they have a new idea they should look back at history and see how that idea turned out.”