A Parting Note from Your Road Warrior for Government

Patrick BresetteGreetings friends, colleagues and partners. As many of you already know, November was my last month as part of the Public Works team. Starting December 1 I began a new career chapter as the executive director of the Texas office of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Looking back, it has been a deeply rewarding decade. I have had the great fortune to work with people I will always call friends and to have developed close working partnerships and friendships with many of you all across the country. I believe that together we have built a vibrant network of people and organizations committed to changing the way Americans view their public systems and structures.

Ten years ago Dianne Stewart asked me if I’d be interested in joining her, Marcia Kinsey and Michael Lipsky in a new effort to examine American perceptions about government in order to find a way to rebuild a cultural understanding that government can (and must) be our collective tool for creating a better society—“to build public will for the common good,” as the Public Works mission statement says. I was intrigued. I shared her belief that progress on a whole host of social and economic issues was thwarted by a pervasive anti-government ideology in American culture and the disaffection and disengagement that it fueled and fed upon. And hey, after thirteen years fighting for low-income families in Texas, how hard could this be?

And so we began.

The initial investigations were fascinating, and we became deeply engaged with the research team at the FrameWorks Institute, including Joe and Meg and Axel, who became our long-time collaborators at the Topos Partnership. We immersed ourselves in the science and art of framing and strategic communications, and we found a whole new way of thinking about the intersection of culture, communications and advocacy—of public will-building. I felt like I was getting a new graduate degree. I became convinced that the insights we were gathering could transform the way many of us who care about the public sector had traditionally approached our work—whether we were public workers, community organizers, public managers, elected officials, or advocates for public programs and adequate public funding.

Once we had solid recommendations in hand we began presenting them to our network of colleagues around the country and reaching out to any organizations or groups that might be interested. We found a deep hunger for tools to change the public conversation about government, and we learned quickly about the nuances of doing so across diverse issue sectors. Early adopters like Noah Berger at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (a Public Works board member), Elaine Mejia at the North Carolina Justice Center (now a leader on the Public Works team) and Jenn Porcari at the public employee division at the American Federation of Teachers absorbed the insights into their work and helped us shape our field work. With every audience and every presentation we adjusted the trainings, sensitive to the complicated relationship we all have with our government, but steadfastly focused on creating a new and more constructive way to understand that relationship. Over the years we developed new training and engagement models such as the Advocates College in Oregon with our wonderful partner Janet Byrd and her team at Neighborhood Partnerships.

As the concepts and approaches we taught spread, we began to see them applied in creative and successful ways. Advocates changed the way they talked about government, taxes and public budgets to support new investments or defend against unwise cuts. Organizers found constructive ways to hold government accountable while helping community members understand that “the government” was theirs to reclaim. Public-sector workers were able to articulate the unique public value of the services and programs they delivered, and public managers and elected officials gained new tools to help their constituents understand the role of public systems in the lives of their communities.

There have certainly been challenges along the way. We faced skepticism that any effort to “reclaim the conversation” about government was a fool’s errand, that Americans have always been skeptical about government, that government itself had created many of the social and economic challenges we face, and that communities of color in particular were the victims of government-sponsored oppression and thus any “defense” of government only reinforced the status quo. But we have never been apologists for government per se, or excused the negative role it has played. Instead we have listened to these legitimate critiques and worked to understand how to address them while insisting that ultimately, government is us, it is our tool to shape for good or for ill. Every social advancement and improvement we seek requires us to reclaim and utilize that tool. Walking away and disengaging are not viable options. In recent years we have focused on engaging leaders in communities of color, racial justice groups, scholars and organizers in conversations about the role of government; seeking wisdom on how to grapple with the negative—and positive—roles that government has played in issues of equity and justice. Along the way we enticed Anika Fassia to join the team. Her deep commitment to an equitable society where public systems are shared tools for opportunity has taken these conversations forward into active and creative collaborations.

On issue after issue we have sought to connect the dots between our critiques and our aspirations, between how things are and how they ought to be, and the fundamental role that public policy and public action must play in bridging one to the other.

This is important and essential work. We live in an era where the “role of government” is central to nearly every public debate. Whether it is as global as climate change or as local as the privatization of your city’s water system, whether it is reshaping the relationship between police and their communities or reclaiming the social value of truly equitable public education, we find ourselves in a moment where the rise of a vocal anti-government, anti-public-spending movement is crossing paths with an ever-diversifying society where notions of shared fate—the foundation of any collective definition of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”—are fragile. We must win this moment. And I know we are up to the task. Ten years on the road working with so many of you has shown me that we are.

And finally, thank you for all that I have learned. The generosity of spirit, the commitment to positive change, the creative energy and the many deeply personal encounters I have experienced have enriched my life in countless ways.

I recently calculated that I have traveled more than 1.5 million air miles over this past ten years. I always sit in the window seat. Looking down on this vast country of ours I am consistently stunned by its beauty and diversity… and sometimes by the scale of its challenges. And then I land in another state and step into a room full of people committed to making their community, state, country and world a better place. And I leave full of hope.

I won’t be far away, so please keep in touch.

Onward and upward.

Patrick

pbresette@childrensdefense.org

(512) 925-8125

3 responses to “A Parting Note from Your Road Warrior for Government”

  1. John VanLandingham says:

    Thanks for these inspiring words, Patrick. And thanks for all you’ve done. I agree completely with your premise about the importance of government, at all levels. Good luck with the CDF. John VL

  2. Stacey Howard says:

    Thank you, Patrick, for all you have done to move our understanding of what it means to be advocates to a new level! I am sure you will enjoy restoring some of the time that you have so generously given us, so that you can enjoy the family you so obviously love! We have been very fortunate to have spent time with you!

  3. Amy Hanauer says:

    Will miss you Patrick. Thanks for the insights. Wind at your back and glad you’re staying in the fight.

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