FIJ Quarterly - Summer 2022 Edition


Lexie Grüber-Pérez

For decades, people impacted by the child welfare system have demanded to be included in the redesign of these institutions. It seems their calls are finally being heard. Terms like ‘user-centered design,’ ‘lived experience engagement,’ and other euphemisms for citizen participation have entered the favored lexicon of child welfare leaders. Even major child welfare funders, whose proclamations drive the direction of public policy, have urged these leaders to co-design with communities. 1 In this journal, you will hear from leading organizers and advocates about the need to shift decision- making power to the communities most acutely impacted by the child welfare system. Calls for redistribution of power to people with lived experience are borne out of the revered American values of democratic participation and self-representation. Few would object to such fundamental ideals. But enthusiasm for inclusion wanes when newly included voices speak truth to power. Beyond calls for inclusion, our authors make clear that countless families have been destroyed in the name of ‘child safety.’ They argue child protection systems often function as family policing agencies that do little to protect children from ongoing abuse and nothing to prevent maltreatment. These writers call for bold, transformative changes to law, for new federal financing investing in communities, and for reparations for destroyed families. How can we make sure these calls are answered, and this movement is successful? By ensuring they resist the timeless challenge facing movements: co-optation. Co-optation is a term used to describe the process by which powerholders neutralize threats to the status quo. By adopting a movement's language and hiring its leaders, powerful institutions are able to rebrand themselves and insulate themselves from criticism and accountability without delivering any material reform. The power dynamics between challengers to the status quo and powerholders—those with the power to enact the change that challengers seek—are complex. Sometimes co-optation is intentional. Yet casting co-optation as a malicious strategy deliberately wielded by powerful individuals to marginalize dissent is overly simplistic. It is more often the case that well-intentioned individuals within powerful institutions genuinely embrace change, but, despite the best intentions, their efforts still result in co-optation. Co-optation tendency to masquerade as, or insidiously grow from, earnest efforts at collaboration is what makes it such a persistent threat to progress. So, what can we learn from those who came before us, saw similar challenges, fought similar fights, sometimes won and sometimes lost? In this foreword, we will examine scholarship that analyzes the work of advocates and organizers from past generations to help us understand how movements are demobilized and co-opted. By better understanding this power interaction, we can equip ourselves to see the warning signs of co-optation and ensure that it is the status quo— not the movement— that is abolished. Investing in Community Power: A Tried-and-Tested Idea The idea of federally funded community empowerment may sound new and radical, but it has already been enacted into law over half a century ago. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the centerpiece legislation of the ‘War on Poverty,” required that new anti-poverty programs be "developed, conducted, ______________ 1 “Child Welfare Co-Design.” Casey Family Programs, 18 Apr. 2022, 2 Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Pub L. No. 88-452, § 202(1)(3), 78 Stat. 505, 516 (1964).

10 | FIJ Quarterly | Summer 2022

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