The Long Game: Approaching the 2020 election as a strategy for health equity
By Solange Gould, Sophia Simon-Ortiz, and Shannon Tracey
Let’s use this election to shift who holds power, how power is held, and what collective power looks like, to advance health equity.
This election, we have the power to transform the terrain upon which the health of our communities depends. To cultivate collective health, we can use the power of our votes to overhaul and transform existing systems of oppression.
We’re all feeling the high stakes, heartache, and anxiety of this election. The decades-long attack on our public sector infrastructure has limited our ability to respond to COVID-19, and has left many at risk, overwhelmed, and harmed. And structural oppression — including racism, patriarchy, corporate power, militarism, and capitalism — is both driving deepening inequities across the social determinants of health, and is the root cause of current and historic voter disenfranchisement. The struggle for our liberation and wellbeing has reached a decisive moment.
That’s why we must work together on all fronts to build power among the people, harness the vote to advance public health and equity, and continue the long struggle to dismantle systemic racism and oppression.
Voting is a form of community power that’s critical for health
Voting and voting access are an important way to confront the unequal distribution of power that drives health inequities. We’re keeping Dr. Martin Luther King’s definition of power front of mind: “Power is the ability to achieve a purpose. Whether or not it is good or bad depends upon the purpose.” This election, we can work to shift who holds power, how power is held, and what collective power can look like, with the purpose of advancing health equity.
We encourage all who can vote to approach voting as an act of taking power into their own hands. And we in public health have a role to play in pivoting the use of that power toward a good purpose. Upholding fair voting and the right to vote is one of the ways we can approach the election as one among many tools we can and must use to create a different set of conditions for continued organizing and systemic transformation.
Mobilizing for this election goes far beyond casting our individual votes. It means ensuring all those who can vote are able to do so safely and accessibly — because it’s no coincidence that those most harmed by structural racism and inequity also face historic and current voter disenfranchisement. With voter suppression tactics ramping up, mobilizing the vote is a powerful counter-strategy for racial justice — to ensure our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, in particular, have their voices and choices centered.
And as we outlined in a blog post last year, access to voting is also critical for health equity. When we practice our agency to make choices about how we live, we benefit physically, mentally, and emotionally. Research confirms this sense of agency is integral to improving health outcomes. Civic engagement can be a powerful stimulus for community empowerment and collective agency, especially in communities where not everyone (yet) has the right to vote due to factors like citizenship status or incarceration history.
The struggle doesn’t begin or end at the polls
Of course, electoral politics is not the sole path to equity and justice. Democracy is a 365-days-a-year commitment — and social change happens through organized and sustained peoples’ movements. Yet if we give up on voting and elections today, we will have a narrower range of tools and solutions available in our work for racial and health equity tomorrow. Let’s vote, and let’s continue building and organizing.
This isn’t about one election or ballot measure — but the ability to proactively shape a shared vision of our future based on people, planet, and justice. It’s about making a steadfast commitment to building power with the people, with the goal of ultimately transforming the conditions of our society. It’s about continuing to honor, support, and follow the leadership of BIPOC communities and movement builders, and fighting alongside communities everywhere who are most impacted by health inequities and systemic racism.
We believe our government needs to play a central and accountable role in redressing harm and advancing equity. We need transformed government institutions that are inclusive, transparent, responsive, and accountable to communities facing inequities for the long term. By selecting who safeguards our institutions, our resources, and our funding, and ensuring that policies center equity and health, we can wield the power of the vote as one among many long-game strategies for collective wellbeing.
Here’s what we’re doing to mobilize and care for our communities
Human Impact Partners (HIP) is engaging in the election as a critical lever and strategy in the movement for health equity. We see it as our civic responsibility to use our voice, evidence, expertise, and resources to take collective action and build power for public health. Our election work builds on, and builds up our ongoing strategies to create a world where everyone has what they need to thrive, and where all communities have a say in the decisions and policies that impact them.
As a reflection of these values, we are posting actions, resources, and materials supporting election integrity. We’re integrating election and voting work throughout HIP’s work; for example, by identifying and sharing ways that health departments can ensure that those they serve are able to safely vote. We also instituted a civic leave policy a few years ago, which allows staff the option to take Election Day off to do election-related work.
We learned from the 2016 election that it is important to support our staff in making this work sustainable. Acknowledging the differential impacts of this election on BIPOC staff members, we’re taking into account the varied roles, labor, needs, and coping strategies amongst staff and making plans for collective care. And in recognition that this year’s results may be slow in coming or possibly contested, we’ve added two post-election Wellness Days for staff to take the space they need to heal and/or take action.
What you can do to mobilize for public health this election
We know that so many of you are already doing so much to create change, defend the right to vote, and ensure the safety and integrity of the upcoming election. Many of you are writing to your elected officials, making calls to your community to increase voter engagement, and working at the polls. We’re thankful for you, and we’re there with you!
To support your efforts, we’ve launched the Defend the Vote for Public Health campaign to help public health practitioners plug into election work. There are so many important remote and in-person roles you can play:
Mobilize, Register, Vote!
- Join our campaign to Defend the Vote For Public Health! Check out the demands we’re supporting, and share the campaign and actions with friends and colleagues by pointing them to PublicHealthAwakened.org/election2020
- Sign on to be a poll worker or election monitor
- Ensure that you, your colleagues, friends, and neighbors who are eligible to vote are registered, and check your registration status, even if you think you are registered!
- If you have a felony conviction, visit Restore Your Vote to determine your eligibility to vote
- Request an absentee ballot — in some states, it’s still not too late!
- Take action locally to restore voting rights with these actions from the American Friends Service Committee
- Share these graphics from VoteHealth2020 on social media
- Learn and share COVID-19 protection practices while voting and voting options by state/territory
- Sign the Union of Concerned Scientists’ health expert letter for safe and expanded access to voting
- Sign the Daily Kos petition to remove US Postmaster Louis DeJoy, fully fund the USPS, and reinstate removed mail sorting equipment to protect mail-in voting
We encourage all who vote this year to think about public health when casting your votes — and to know that this struggle does not begin or end at the polls. Building collective power and movements on the long road to social justice will continue beyond the election, regardless of the outcome. We encourage you to join and stay active in the Public Health Awakened network, advance the demands in our COVID-19 Health Equity Policy Platform, forge closer relationships with community organizers, and double down on advancing the movements for racial justice and health equity.
We can turn the tragedy of 2020 into a powerful movement in 2021 that re-envisions and reshapes what democracy and health can look like.These next three weeks are building on the momentum from the months, years, and decades before. We stand together because we’ve been working together for the long game — and we will stand together for whatever comes next.
Solange Gould is Co-Director at Human Impact Partners. She has been in public health practice for over 20 years, advancing progressive policy and systems change to improve health, equity, and sustainability with government partners, advocates and organizers, and communities most impacted.
Sophia (Sophie) Simon-Ortiz works on organizing and advocacy at Human Impact Partners and coordinates the Public Health Awakened network. She is passionately dedicated to building the organizing and advocacy power of public health workers across the country and to bridging health justice work with other social justice movements.
Shannon Tracey is Operations Director at Human Impact Partners, with nearly two decades of experience working throughout CA as a grassroots organizer, coalition builder, fundraiser, and communicator. She is passionate about advancing justice and sustainability in the world through internal systems and practices that reflect HIP’s values and commitment to equity.