Empathy in Action: Rethinking Public Policy Education

The Limitations and Possibilities of Public Policy

By: Haleema Bharoocha, Edited by: Sommer Iqbal

In my role as a policy practitioner and community advocate, I have dedicated the past few years to honing the symbiosis between organizing and policy, with the aim of promoting equitable, compassionate, and impactful outcomes for the communities we are working alongside and for, to create policies. To understand this interplay, it’s essential to position public policy within the spectrum of social change strategies. These strategies span from offering instant assistance (direct service) to confronting power structures (organizing). Public policy occupies a pivotal position, leaning towards challenging power dynamics while operating within institutions of the status quo.

The United States government was violently established on the blood, sweat, and tears of Black and Indigenous people. Many US policies stem from the legacy of slavery, genocide, and colonialism. Today these ideologies persist in contemporary policies. Notably, the 13th Amendment stands as a glaring illustration, legalizing the forced labor of incarcerated individuals. Further, existing policies fall short in establishing a comprehensive social safety net a deficiency that has grown more pronounced over time in the US. Recognizing this historical pattern, it becomes clear that public policy alone cannot liberate disenfranchised communities. Nevertheless, public policy is a powerful tool to advocate for the community’s needs and reduce the magnitude of harm faced by those most disenfranchised. As articulated by James Burch of the Anti Police-Terror Project, public policy can offer temporary relief allowing targeted communities to persevere in their struggle against the forces of the state.

Public Policy Alone is Not Enough

To achieve transformative lasting change that addresses underlying issues and fulfills holistic needs, it’s crucial to deploy public policy in tandem with direct action, political education, direct service, and mutual aid.

Drawing from my experience as the former Advocacy Director of Alliance for Girls, I saw firsthand how long the process for change took from writing a policy to its implementation. It took over two years to witness safety-enhancing policies against sexual harassment on transit to come into effect. Even then, we still had a long way to go before complete safety was actualized. The introduction of a mutual aid program, such as a buddy system for riders, could have provided prompt assistance while policy development continued. Although not a root solution, it offers temporary relief during the policy’s gestation period. Communities often cannot afford to wait for policies to mature, making a combined approach of policy and other change models more effective and impactful. 

Leveraging alternative social change models can drive policy efforts forward and prompt governmental action. The Moms For Housing movement illustrates how community organizing can play a role in advancing progressive change. Their organizing secured policy wins for affordable housing (including statewide legislation) and the election of Dominique Waller to the Berkeley Rent Board, as well as influenced the election of Councilmember Carroll Fife in Oakland. Fife’s legislative work spanning from Just Cause Eviction, Infrastructure, and Housing Measures, and expanding temporary housing sites, was bolstered by organizing and movement-building. 

What Public Policy Institutions Can Do

Public policy institutions can play a critical role in addressing community needs and bridging societal disparities. Public policy encompasses various roles such as policymakers, analysts, advocates, lobbyists, and researchers. Our objective regardless of the role should be aimed at enhancing people’s lives, especially marginalized and historically neglected populations.

In Master of Public Policy (MPP) programs, policy is often taught in a silo, not accounting for the other models of social change that are so often central to the success of community-driven policies. While some contend that other social change models are disconnected from policy, this perspective might apply primarily to policies that align with the status quo and enjoy support from the supermajority. At GSPP we proudly “speak truth to power” and “cultivate a safe space to talk openly and collaboratively about crucial, sometimes unpopular and highly-charged policy issues.” Our community attracts individuals who exemplify this commitment, often championing policies that challenge the status quo, including topics like reparations, reproductive justice, and prison and police abolition, freedom for Palestine, among others. These policies aren’t easily adopted; achieving success demands a multifaceted approach, integrating various social change strategies simultaneously.

Researchers, faculty, and student leaders within policy institutions hold the power to create an impactful and meaningful policy program through: 

  1. Collaborating with communities and addressing current issues and community priorities: Forging partnerships with local community-based organizations engaged in policy research, advocacy, and direct service to inform curricula, research agendas, and more.
  2. Involving community partners as guest speakers and in events: Arranging for community representatives to participate as guest speakers in a paid capacity at events and in classroom sessions, and organizing town halls and listening sessions to explore ongoing policy issues informed by community perspectives. 
  3. Undertaking community-driven research: Collaborating with community-based organizations to shape the direction, methodology, and dissemination of research, and ensuring its relevance and applicability for direct impact. 
  4. Shifting the focus from individuals to systems: Prioritizing policy research and practices that address the underlying causes of problems rather than individual behaviors.
  5. Emphasizing practical application: Offering action-oriented toolkits, resources, and templates that showcase how policy concepts are applied. This includes the analysis of real-time policy texts, utilization of case studies, and engagement with current policies to aid quantitative learning for students. 

In what ways is GSPP providing its students with the necessary tools to effectively advocate for, analyze, write, and enact policies that disrupt the status quo and contribute to a future rooted in justice?

Conclusion: Disrupting the Status Quo Through Community-Driven Policy Advocacy and Pedagogy 

Public policy has the potential to mitigate the extent of harm experienced by communities. It’s vital that those responsible for addressing the world’s most pressing challenges—policymakers, advocates, and researchers—possess tangible, equity-focused tools and, above all, empathy. Drawing from my personal experience in effectively mobilizing millions of dollars in California through policy, I cannot underscore the important role of other social chant models like political education and community organizing in policy change. MPP programs must evolve beyond isolated analytical perspectives and embrace a holistic, community-centered approach to prepare students aiming to disrupt the status quo through public policy.

Haleema Bharoocha (she/her) is a Gen Z South Asian American, named on She the People’s list of 25 Under 25: Women of Color to Watch. As the former Advocacy Director of Alliance for Girls, Haleema achieved tangible results for her community. She secured $1.8 million for menstrual equity and the passage of AB 367, addressing period poverty, obtained nearly half a million dollars and managed a Santa Clara County program supporting young mothers’ childcare access and co-led “Not One More Girl,” a youth-driven initiative combating sexual harassment on BART, which influenced California’s SB 1161 transit safety bill. She is also a former commissioner on the Alameda County Commission on the Status of Women. Haleema is featured in Teen Vogue, Bloomberg, SF Chronicle, KQED, USA Today. Haleema can be reached at Haleema@berkeley.edu.