Productive National Narrative

Top Insights From a Moment in History

By Tracy Wareing Evans  December 28, 2021


Looking back at this year, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of having lived through a decade in a span of just 11 months. I often find myself reflecting on the historic moment we are living in–wondering how my now 14-year-old son will one day describe this time to his grandkids. Together we have witnessed a massive vaccine rollout to an ongoing worldwide health emergency that continues to have economic and social repercussions across the globe, especially as COVID-19 variants emerge. At the same time, communities have been impacted by severe weather, gun violence, and other social strains, many of them further exacerbated by the pandemic.

We have seen the ongoing fight for racial justice, both advancements and setbacks, showing up in all aspects of our three-branch system of government. At the beginning of the year, we witnessed an unprecedented attack on our U.S. Capitol, and continue to experience the fallout from it. Through a Presidential transition, we have been introduced to new leaders, goals, and strategies. Most recently, we saw passage of a historic infrastructure bill, and states and localities are now making key decisions on its implementation.

As historian and On Tyranny author, Timothy Snyder, reminds us–it’s all one history. What we do with it next is up to us.



In that spirit, as we head into a new year, I am sharing some of my own insights. Many of these are drawn from the brilliant voices that contributed to APHSA’s thought leadership platforms, including our second year of Leadership Corner and new podcast, Our Dream Deferred. These themes deserve much deeper attention than I am giving them here, but I hope they will prompt your own reflections on lessons and opportunities we can build from together in 2022.

We must do more to center power structures with people, not systems. It is not enough to understand that lived experience is lived expertise; nor is it enough to give space for the voice of people who experience the systems we run. Centering people most affected by poverty and adversity requires being involved and having equal power and influence in decision making. People–youth, parents, families, community leaders–must be the lead architects. And, we–as human services leaders–must be able to see the unvarnished truth of how people and communities experience the systems we run in order to deconstruct and reconfigure them to work for everyone.

For public systems, being more proximate to people is like building a new muscle–it requires repetition and daily practice. At the core of this work are the following:

  • Equity must drive our policy decisions. We need to prioritize historical and current inequities. As Derrik Anderson, Executive Director of Race Matters for Juvenile Justice and APHSA Board member shares, we must be truthtellers—always asking ourselves as systems leaders—who has benefitted and who has been burdened by our policies and practices? And, as Derrik also notes, to get there we must constantly strive for a shared language and understanding.
  • We must understand power within the context of who has social and economic power. In our July Leadership Corner, Dr. Darrick Hamilton shared his very personal journey that illuminated how much White dominant norms shape our approaches, social norms, and everyday decisions.
  • We must assign greater value to qualitative, not just quantitative, data. While we have made progress in recent years in moving from outputs to outcomes, our public systems continue to be over-reliant on numbers. These data detract from our ability to fully hear what communities have experienced and how it relates to what they actually need, let alone capture the community assets that can help build well-being for everyone.

We must get underneath the stories that stand in our way. I continue to be struck by the power of narrative—both good and bad—and why it is so important to understand dominant narratives and social norms at their roots. As author and advocate Heather McGee so effectively captures: “Everything we believe is based on a story we have been told.” Listen here. Understanding how narrative has shaped systems and built bias and racism into our structures is a first step in deconstructing the way we are and how we are as a country. Put another way, if we only see the trees, we have only part of the plot line. To understand our full story, we need to ensure we have the entire forest in our line of sight. To do so, requires:

  • Being intentional about understanding how policy decisions and actions show up in that story line across generations of our nation’s history. This includes understanding how social norms are shaped by those with power.
  • Recognizing the impact of propaganda on our dominant narrative. For too long, we have described propaganda as a thing of other nations, rooted in history of another time and place, where autocratic leaders used disinformation to saturate knowledge. The fact is that propaganda has deep roots in our own racist history as a nation, promoting default thinking that has elicited negative cultural tropes generation after generation. And, in today’s world of social media, because we have just as much access to misinformation–much of it intentionally false—we must be mindful of its impact on our collective efforts to advance social and economic mobility. Oxford Professor Phil Howard shares tools on how to mitigate the impact of disinformation campaigns.


  • Recognizing that binary stories that focus on one group in comparison to another is also problematic–it ignores the multiple identities that each of us holds, and the ways in which our lives are shaped by what we experience across our lifespan. For more on intersectionality, I encourage you to check out our most recent Leadership Corner featuring Renata Soto and John Simpkins.

Building common ground is core to our democracy. As a bipartisan membership organization, at our core, we are about building common ground so people and the communities in which they live can thrive. Our members and partners come from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives across the political spectrum. Each year we consider the factors that impact the ability of health and human services leaders to deliver on the mission of their agencies. The highly polarized landscape inevitably makes our annual list as a barrier, but we are committed to working with and through our members to try to transcend that divide. What constantly gives me hope and inspires our team at APHSA to lean in, is the way in which leaders in our field show up every day with a resolute focus on their mission and a desire to continually learn from each other irrespective of different ideologies and approaches. And, what particularly stands out for me this year is just how important human services is to the foundation of a functioning democracy (see our Cornerstone briefs) and the degree to which our working together—across red, purple, and blue states and communities—is part of assuring the future of democracy in America.

We are humbled and grateful to work in support of human services leaders and the ways in which each of you contribute to the public good every day. We look forward to continuing to support your mission and impact in 2022 and beyond.

About the Author

Tracy Wareing Evans (full bio)

President and CEO
American Public Human Services Association


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