President Obama’s final State of the Union address touched on many of the themes and topics relevant to our work in California to improve health outcomes for all Californians: the success of the Affordable Care Act in providing quality, affordable health coverage to 18 million previously uninsured people; the potential for enacting bipartisan criminal justice reform; the need to respect each other regardless of faith, race, or immigration status; and the need to address income inequality.
His examples of everyday people who have made our nation great were ones we can all relate to: the DREAMer who is studying hard in school, the protester determined to show that justice matters, the father who overcomes his own prejudice to accept his gay son, a determined worker who was formerly incarcerated and the employer who gave him that second chance.
The height of his speech came in the last quarter, where he said that “democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.” He’s right: when we let that happen, and when those who otherwise inspire us walk away from the democratic process, then we all lose.
The notable progress Californians have achieved toward #HealthAndJustice4All happened because of individuals engaged in the democratic process. Whether it’s the young person that shows up to school board meetings to advocate for restorative justice practices in their schools or the parents who show up to city council meetings asking for more parks and green space in their communities; these individuals have demonstrated through their actions that they understand what President Obama meant when he said: “[O]ur collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us.”
While we have many shining examples of engaged Californians, too many of us remain disconnected. Only 42 percent of registered Californians voted in the 2014 statewide elections, with the lowest turnout in Los Angeles County, where only 31 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Of course voting is not the only way to measure civic engagement, especially by those not yet able to vote because of age or immigration status, but it’s a helpful barometer.
If we are truly going to achieve our goals of building healthy communities across this state, and transforming our society’s culture of punishment into a culture of prevention, then we will all need to encourage more people to join us in speaking out and standing up. Because health and justice happens when you make your voice heard.