Bertha Cooper

Think About It: Who shall lead?

Last summer I was writing about what I called embedded threads of intimidation in our community. I was suggesting there needed to be a community response calling out behavior such as carrying guns into a peaceful demonstration or harassing a family visiting the peninsula for a camping trip because they were in a “suspicious white bus.”

I was looking for the entity or person who could take the lead in calming tensions and fostering communication and started a dialogue with the Sequim city manager and police chief, both of whom were receptive.

I am sure it was my pestering on different levels that garnered me an invitation one year ago to join a city of Sequim task force to plan for community conversations around equity and inclusion. The task force was formed following the passage of the Sequim City Council resolution condemning hate speech, discrimination, and racism. The goal was to better understand our community’s culture around equity and inclusion.

I felt there were racial overtones to both intimidation incidents but was not then and not now willing to say racism was the entire cause. However, I am clear-eyed that there are levels of intimidation in racism spoken or practiced by individuals or groups. The more insidious level is favoritism of certain groups built into systems over time.

I support any endeavor to end the hateful impact of discrimination and felt honored to join a group of city employees and community people dedicated to promoting and providing a safe environment and forum for all who experience racism and discrimination to tell their stories.

Listening to their experiences was seen as important to increasing community awareness and establishing a vision in which each of us is respected in our community despite our differences.

As hopeful as I was that I would be a contributor and use my planning background, it wasn’t to be in the Zoom environment that didn’t allow me to know others or be known. I sidelined myself but continued to be an ardent supporter of task force efforts and those working daily to bring about change.

End of the beginning

Fast forward to today and the task force has nearly completed its work. One meeting remains to tie up loose ends. The task force held two public community conversations on zoom following individual contacts to several community groups working on the issue. Barbara Hanna, the city’s communications and marketing director and lead facilitator of the task force, reported themes from the public conversations and recommendations from the task force at the May 10 council meeting.

One of the primary recommendations was for the city to hire a dedicated person with a background in equity work to continue the community conversation outreach. Seems most of the work done by city staff was in addition to their full-time jobs which could not effectively continue because of the scope of the project.

Hanna returned to the June 14 council meeting to seek the council’s direction. All but one council member, Brandon Janisse, voted to end the city’s leadership in community endeavors around equity and inclusion. Most members praised the work of the task force but felt someone else should step into the lead. Councilor Rachel Anderson emphasized her belief in the process and her willingness to participate in whatever program evolves.

During the year of the task force, the city did bring expertise into the community by joining the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) a national network of government working on issues of equity and opportunity. The council voted not to renew its membership by a 4-3 vote.

Other than one mention of having completed the work, it was unclear to me why the council saw no need to provide city staff with any expertise in what should be continuing internal work on equity issues.

Fair enough that the city does not want to put its money into leading what could become a burgeoning complex program involving multiple partners with varying agendas related to equity and inclusion.

The questions become: Who does, and for what end?

Blind alleys

No one I’ve asked has named an entity that could or would step into the task of increasing awareness of individual and systemic racism in our community. The group may exist but has yet to step forward.

Absent leadership may mean there is not the necessary community environment to support the investment. It may mean it’s too scary, given the national climate of stark political divides on the meaning of rights of people which has brought violence to some communities.

It may mean that most people don’t believe equity and inclusion is a problem in our community – city, regional or otherwise. One of the themes from the public community conversations that were held was “a denial and absence of recognition that racism exists in the community.”

In my opinion as a planner, we will continue going down blind alleys until we have data beyond the incidents featured in the news. As awful as the incidents are, they in isolation do not drive policy development, let alone cultural change.

Exclusion from civil rights and unequal opportunity whether due to race, status or power grabs is an enormous problem and, if nothing else happens, governments do have a role in critically examining their practices with an eye toward establishing systems that support equity and inclusion.

Those of us in the community who want to embed human rights and respect for all into our community culture and systems can keep the conversation alive with the tools we have. We should ask our candidates about their equity and inclusion visions. We can ask as much of our religious leaders and others who influence our world. We can participate in peaceful demonstrations that praise equality instead of pointing fingers of blame.

I want to believe that all of this can be done without becoming that which we are trying to end. The greatest tool we have is ourselves.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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