Jayce Farmer was a teenager in Florida in his civics class when the subject of Jim Crow laws piqued his interest. The segregationist laws enacted by Southern legislatures made him think about the people making the decisions that would affect generations to come.
As an African American male, the issues struck a chord with him. Behind the laws were people who were voted into public office — but by whom and why? Did the voters in that era know who they were voting for?
Farmer started to follow the money — literally. A UNLV School of Public Policy and Leadership professor, Farmer imparts this lesson to his public administration students: if you want to make a change, look at how federal and local governments operate their governments through budgets.
“The budget and numbers ... where you invest money dictates the direction of the government,” Farmer said.
Farmer found himself working for the Tallahassee city government, getting a bird’s-eye view of how public officials decide where and how to spend the taxpayer’s money.
When cities examine where to allocate resources on parks, school funding, and neighborhood improvements, Farmer says voters should study the reasons why. The housing and economic inequalities of today can be traced through the history of the United States, Farmer said.
For example, federal policies in the 1930s saw the discriminatory practices of redlining, in which African Americans were restricted from getting mortgage loans in areas outside of designated Black neighborhoods, which traditionally received less funding and had lower tax-bases than "white" neighborhoods.
As Americans think about what course of action they want to take for causes important to them — like dismantling systemic racism within institutional and governmental frameworks — Farmer talked to us about why voters need to look at budgets before voting for endorsing a candidate.
“I think of racism like I think of ethics," he said. "You can't force a person to be ethical. You can't make a person stop becoming racist. That is a choice. But you can teach people about systemic racist policies. Unfortunately, racism is so embedded in our society that it’s going to take a long time to get negative culture to die off. Culture change is very hard to implement — whether it is societal or organizational.”
Becoming and staying engaged as a voter is key. Farmer shared some examples of what you can do to be active and involved:
1. Learn about elected officials and individuals running for office.
Do their interests align with yours? Participate in local government meetings, write to your congressional representatives, and call their offices. Study the law enforcement and judicial systems and the candidates’ policies running for those offices. In Clark County, that means understanding how governmental jurisdictions are split up depending on where you live. Vote in local elections. Federal elections matter but don't forget about the lawmakers deciding what’s happening in your city. The local government officials are making decisions on your behalf in local, regional, and federal matters. The problem is that citizens tend to not participate during local government elections. Research has shown a lack of interest in local government participation. Local governments are closest to us. It’s vital citizens participate in the local government process. Policies enacted by local governments affect us the most and fastest,” he said.
2. Do the work.
Have the conversations, engage your personal drive, and be willing to understand the historical context. Read the book How The States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein. It details the governance behind how governmental structures came to be. Become well-rounded by broadening your horizons. Learn about history, civics, sciences, the environment, and policies. PBS is a hidden gem and very good at educational programming that gets into history, taxation, science. Watch something that will feed your mind. And also, this may not be easy to do, but try to engage with people who have different perspectives and political views.
3. Be realistic.
If your cause is racism awareness, remember being racist is about choices. Start by changing yourself and the choices you make.
4. Mentor the next generation.
In this National Public Radio cartoon, the authors describe how to raise informed active citizens. Parents, educators, and mentors should encourage children to understand public policy, the electoral process, and what it means to vote. Encourage kids to volunteer in local communities. Growing up with service in mind can help build future leaders.
5. Consider a career in public service.
As a public servant, addressing issues requires a high moral compass. Be honest in your dealings, thoughtful in policies, and gain a data-driven perspective in order to make informed decisions. For public organizations and nonprofits to do well and function appropriately, you have to be diligent in keeping the public interest first. Public service is not about perpetuating your private interest; it is about serving the public and helping administrators execute the will of the public.