Mary Kelly-01

Mary Kelly Persyn is the founder and principal in her solo practice, Persyn Law and Policy: Bending Toward Justice.

What is one important thing that we Americans can do together that we can’t do alone?
We can join together to make our communities better. We can form a web of support for our youth, elders, and others in need. I’d love to see us reimagine citizenship as an act of community, meaning that we would see ourselves in each other and take mutual responsibility. One of my favorite songs is U2’s “One,” which the band wrote in Berlin before the Wall fell: “we get to carry each other.” That’s not a burden; it is the gift of civil society.

What about your country, state, or community makes you proud? How do you think government interacts with that?
I am constantly proud of the brilliance I see in the engineering and tech world—the world my husband lives in. It’s easy, and sometimes true, to caricature Silicon Valley endeavors like social media apps as irresponsible “brogrammer” projects that fail to build community, but there’s a lot that the Valley gets right that doesn’t get publicized. The Valley has a lot of power and potential to build communities, especially in the health care space, where my husband is. I’m also proud that, while Silicon Valley has justifiably gotten a lot of heat for being white and male, awareness is growing and the will to evolve is too.

In health care tech, we’re finding new ways to use big data and machine learning to give doctors powerful tools to help people avoid some of the biggest killers (diabetes, stroke, heart disease), and help doctors better treat people with chronic conditions and other rare diseases.

Government, including people like our Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, is committed to harnessing technology to serve the public good. The Affordable Care Act encourages government to support tech’s development of new patient-centered tools that strengthen preventative medicine and make it easier for doctors to treat chronic illness and prevent certain complications. And the ACA has done so much to stabilize and provide health care for those at risk. Our government’s perspective on public health is shifting for the better. That makes me proud of our country and our economy.

What do you think it means to be a good citizen?
Being a good citizen has two main parts. One is being aware that we live enmeshed in a social contract and we’re a civil society. We don’t exist alone. And, as President Obama recently said, a key part is seeing ourselves in each other—cherishing opportunity for all children, not just our own. The other is looking out for ways to remove barriers to opportunity, because our society still faces a tremendous weight of obstacles that we can remove. We created the New Deal. We put a person on the moon. We can do anything together. And we can do it by adding capacity to society and making people’s lives better at the same time.

What one word describes our government as it is?
Alienated.

What one word do you wish described our government?
Connected.

If you could run any government program or agency, real or imaginary, at any level of government, what would it be and what would you do there?
I would run a government agency laser focused on removing barriers to opportunity on a collective-action model. You get all the stakeholders in the room: the experts, the activists, the community, the private sector, the youth leaders. For starters, you talk about community schools, screening for childhood trauma and adversity in pediatricians’ offices and providing effective treatment, and instituting a living wage—not a “minimum” one—so people can raise healthy families in healthy places. You finally have the difficult conversation about how race impacts opportunity, and always has. Again, you talk about interconnection, because where opportunity is limited for some, our country will simply never reach its potential. Angela Glover Blackwell’s key insight is that “equity is the superior growth model.” And that’s my imaginary agency’s guiding light.

What thing that government does do you think would surprise most Americans?

Government provides health care to everyone who walks in the door of an emergency room no matter what. It may not resemble what we think of as an emergency, like a fever or a nutritional deficit, but there are people in emergency rooms handling situations that are to us invisible.

What is your first memory of an interaction with government?
When I was around four years old, the fire department sped to the local playground to pry me out of a horse-shaped swing into which I’d firmly wedged my head. Thanks Los Altos FD!

What was your most recent government interaction?
I just handled multiple issues with three different cars with the DMV and the SF police. It was very easy because of the creative and kind and competent employees there.

What is your favorite thing that government does?
Government inspires us to be better. When I listen to the best politicians of any party talk about their pride in our country, about where we can go and how we can do better, I want to walk right out my door and start giving back. Government can deeply inspire people to think about ourselves as a civil society.

In October, Toni Morrison trenchantly commented that when she was a young girl, Americans were “citizens”; she and her family, she said, were second-class citizens, but citizens nonetheless. Then the language changed. In the 50’s and 60’s, we became “consumers,” and eventually “taxpayers.” Morrison’s observation of the evolution from “citizen” to “taxpayer” is both incisive and tragic. So my favorite thing is when the government talks about citizenship, as opposed to consuming or paying taxes.

Who is your government hero who is not an elected official?
My government hero is Noah Shaw, who is General Counsel and Secretary of the Board at the New York State Energy Research Development Authority. I met him when he was an intern at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Boston and he was a staff attorney. Noah’s belief in the goodness of people and the power of government is evergreen. Before NYSERDA, Noah worked at the Department of Energy. He is always looking for ways to make government work better, to make energy work better for the people of New York. One of my favorite examples is the growth of energy-efficient affordable housing in NY. Noah’s a great example of using a state as a lab to test deeply innovative and important policy. He is an excellent collaborator, a creative thinker, and an inspiring person.

ImagineGov: If government could be anything, if government was what we want and aspire for it to be, what would it be or do?
I imagine a government that finds a way to talk to the American people so we understand our interconnection and interdependence. Our government is inherently alienated from parts of itself. When we look at Congress and see people unable to talk to each other, it creates a ripple effect through society, so we do a lot of yelling past each other. I ImagineGov actually listening across political divides.

Why is the work of Indivisible so important?
People have come to think about government as self-hating, ineffective, and inefficient. And even government officials speak disparagingly of government and want to shut it down. The very word Indivisible is important, not just because of its powerful imagery in the history of America, but because it means being incapable of being divided. If a house divided against itself cannot stand, then we’re on that road.

Indivisible speaks from a place of unity and integrity and says that we’re united by more than what divides us. It’s important that Indivisible speaks about government, and not politics, because they’re not the same thing. We need to remember that we are one. E pluribus unum. We’ve forgotten that citizenship is an act of community.

Name someone whose answers to these questions you would like to read.
Ann O’Leary. She has devoted her life to thinking about how to make life better for our most vulnerable with a depth of intelligence, wisdom, and understanding that is unmatched.

Indivisible. We listen. Share Your Voice.