Sunday, December 10, 2017

Diversity Conversations

Public Safety Committee of the City of Burlington will meet Tues day night 6:00 City Hall CR 12 (1st Floor). You are welcome to attend, and there will be opportunities to testify. This is supposed to be a "working meeting", so I am not sure how restrictive they will be.

This committee is where the meaningful responses to the City Council resolutions will be discussed before the ordinances from the Ordinance Committee are debated.

(Some will remember that the City Council passed two resolutions on August 28, one to ask the Ordinance Committee to write a bill to stiffen penalties for misbehavior on Church Street, and one for the Public Safety Committee to consider alternatives to the Police response. They are thought of as operating in tandem by members of the Council, who want to consider them together as a package.)

You are welcome to submit your ideas in writing before the meeting, and then testify at the meeting. Please let me know if you need help being heard, this Tuesday or at any other time.

By Tuesday, some or all of my proposals will be posted on the City's web site. Finding these documents can be difficult, so I will try to get link. Again, please get in touch with me if you need help.

When I submitted my proposals to the City Attorney, I added a new proposal in the email cover letter. Referring to the previous Ordinance Committee meeting, I wrote:

As witnessed at their meeting, there really was no room to discuss the merits of the using the police power to approach these issues. That undoubtedly will come up at the City Council meeting over the proposed ordinance, and by implication at the Public Safety Committee.

Meanwhile, many folks are waiting to see what the Public Safety Committee will do. Language I heard more than once at the Ordinance Committee was "Correcting Behavior", which seems necessary for some behavior, but puts on display the privilege of deciding what is acceptable and what is not. I want to address these issues not through control, but through conversation and healing.

The City is both powerful and powerless. It's primary modality of effect is the police power, the right to make law and enforce it. And yet despite enforcement, people continue to do things contrary to the public safety. (In fact , the City has found that there are numerous socially offensive behaviors which cannot be regulated, and must be dropped from the City's code.) The resistance of our community to use of the police power as a first response to socially offensive behavior is both amazing and powerful. We have an opportunity to explore solutions which are not coercive, and which are not degrading, but seek to build relationships and healing between people who do not understand each other. While the country on whole enhances police powers and criminalizes homelessness, we have a chance to steer in a different direction.

The issues we are facing call for a public conversation about what it means to live in a community with other people; with people who are different in wealth and culture; people who come from different places, and have learned different ways to survive; with people of different educations and levels of education; it calls for diversity education across economic tiers, and it calls for us to address each other as persons, as members of the community, with respect. We are a diverse community in our way; we need to talk with each other if we want to remain a community.

I propose Diversity Conversations over a period of years, led by a working group which gathers activist, faith, non-profit, for-profit, and public sector, leaders into a group that can plan multiple events and conversations. It could include conversations about how the community and the government work, what people expect from each other, how the institutions that are meant to serve people can also hurt them, and so forth. The City's own NPAs and CEDO, the Peace and Justice center, the Community Justice Center, the various faith groups, the refugee resettlement program, and numerous others, are doing similar sorts of things, and with all of them and us working as a community, this effort could scale up to include all of the sub-communities of our city.

The point of these conversations is to bring diverse and sometimes alienated communities together to get to know each other, including but not limited to the Community of the Poor and the City's wealthiest. We want to make ourselves human to each other, so that we can change the focus of City life from merely living separate lives within a set of laws, to participation in a community within a shared sense of belonging and mutual respect, and thus address some of the marginal and unfortunate behavior through positive relationships, avoiding the use of the police power, which is so limited in what it can really do.