Self-Aware Civic Leader

By Dr. Brandi Blessett, associate professor and Director of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Cincinnati

Current events often highlight discrimination and injustice for people who are Black or Latino, persons that are differently abled, identify as LGBTQ, or are poor, etc. There are contentious conversations related to the deservingness to access to clean water in Flint, Michigan and Sioux Falls, Nevada; the humanity of immigrants who are seeking refuge in the United States; or the desire to close the gender-pay gap. To say there are oppositional opinions about these topics is an understatement. However, these are real problems that affect all people and communities in the United States and an unwillingness to talk through and debate about these issues does not move society in a direction to deal with any of these respective matters in a way to bring about solutions. The topics mentioned above are complex and multifaceted. In other words, solutions require understanding issues from different perspectives and engaging with diverse stakeholders. While having difficult dialogues is not easy to maneuver in any environment, an unwillingness to converse results in the reproduction of disparities for people and communities at the margins.

The current political environment has resulted in people talking past each other, where the focus of communication is to respond rather than to listen and understand. In many ways this lack of humility has not only deepened the gulf between people and communities, it also contributed to vast polarization and blatant hostility for people across race, gender, class, and political lines. Under these conditions, U.S. society is quickly moving away from the ideals of fairness, justice, and democracy. These challenges do not just affect interpersonal communication and relationships, but are filtered through institutions (policies and decision-making) and reinforced culturally (media and public opinion).

In order to move forward, there must be a conscious willingness to interrogate the ways in which we are socialized to create and justify worth and deservingness based on dominant ideologies and preferences. A first step toward unpacking the taken for granted assumptions about people and place require a level of self-awareness about:

  • who we (as individuals) are?
  • what have we learned from family, friends, schools, religion about people and communities?
  • what is my lived experience?
  • how does my lived experience shape the way I see the world?

The ability an answer these questions will begin the process of engaging in a level of self-reflection and awareness that can facilitate a better understanding about the ways in which socialization affects interpersonal relationships and professional priorities. Our understanding of the world is shaped by the dimensions of identity both primary (race, sex, ethnicity, age) and secondary (work background, marital and parental status, geographic location). Primary cannot be changed, while secondary dimensions are malleable characteristics that are fluid based on the collective experiences that span your life. Being aware of identity, positions people to better understand the ways in which privilege and disadvantage can easily flow based on context and circumstances. Being mindful about identity can help people contextualize highly contentious issues that are contrary to one’s lived experience. 

It is difficult to look in the mirror and take accountability for the words we speak or the actions we take. However, there needs to be more ownership of individual roles and responsibility with respect to the change needed to facilitate better engagement with people and communities different than us. Conceptually, democracy is strongest when varying factions are able to connect on common ground issues that provide an avenue for change. Representative democracy means all interests are considered in the governing of society. While the United States has never lived up to its ideals, the ability to change the tide is needed and the time is right now.

The ability to grow and strengthen democracy is the ability to confront issues of difference in U.S. society – race, gender, class, sexual identity, ability, among so many other things. As citizens, we must develop the competence to learn, develop new skills, increase our awareness, and raise our aptitude for an appreciation of the nuance and diversity that exists in a culturally rich society. The polarization that currently exists is the result of being resistant to change and until citizens realize that not only is change necessary it is also inevitable. Embrace the evolution that needs to occur individually, as well as in society. This can lead to a world that co-produces a new reality, one that is equitable and inclusive for everyone.


Want to learn more from Dr. Blessett? Check out our YouTube channel to hear Dr. Blessett, along with Prof. Jacqueline Bleak) discussing difficult dialogues (from our March, 2019 panel discussion). Or, listen to her, along with Dr. Sean McCandless, on the Growing Democracy Podcast (Series 2, Episode 7)