Jovanka Beckles: Making Room for All Voices

blogimage.jpgMy day job for the past 14 years has been that of a mental health clinician specializing in work with children and adolescents and their families. Perhaps the most important aspect of my work beyond keeping the child safe, has to do with examining and shifting behaviors that do not serve them. When there is an identified problem within the family, it is critical to look at the behaviors - especially behaviors that are tied to agreements families make. When the agreements do not serve the family in a healthy way, an unhealthy system is established. The whole family is affected and everyone must look at the behaviors that result in the identified crisis that brought the family to seek assistance.

In my work as a City council member it is my imperative as an elected official voted in to represent the people of Richmond, to create and maintain a safe space within the forum of a city council meeting so that all may participate and be heard. I believe this to be true for my colleagues and all elected officials. If we truly want to have an informed and engaged community, we cannot allow the verbally aggressive few to intimidate the many into silence for fear that they will be victimized by hate speech or unable to effectively communicate because of outbursts and other disruptions in the council chamber. For far too long that is exactly what has happened. On more than one occasion, those who might otherwise attend council meetings and participate in the public process, have told me that they do not feel heard or respected in the space designed for them to be a part of the process of conducting City business. Far from being a homogeneous or select small group of people, this diverse group of individuals spans the spectrum of socio-economic, class, race and ethnicity, age, education levels and other distinguishing factors - including gender, orientation and political parties. What they all have in common is that rather than feeling invited into the process; they feel pushed out and unwelcome.

If the process of governing does not reflect how to manage conflicting opinions in a thoughtful, law abiding manner, how can we expect citizens to have confidence that their civic leaders have the capacity and will to enact laws protecting them from a variety of abuses?  Certainly, there is plenty of room to share the blame. Elected officials and the public alike must take responsibility for our actions. We must agree that any disruption of the proceedings creates a distraction from important issues.  Orchestrated disruptions are especially distracting, and are designed to be exactly that.  Rules currently in place dictate how we participate in meetings, including how we engage with one another. The Richmond City Council operates with a set of rules that are enforced by the Chair of the body, our Mayor. Rules are intended to enforce the behaviors necessary to manage the business at hand. They are designed to reflect a certain value of respect and to provide consequences for those actions that are willfully disrespectful and interfere with the business of the council. Essentially, rules are agreements, and they only work when we adhere to them.

I have placed an item on the June 17 City Council agenda, 

(K-1 DIRECT the city manager to work with the city attorney and the police chief to draft a resolution to establish rules and procedures regarding repeated willful disruptions during the City Council meetings) to direct staff to develop consequences for the rules we currently have in place. The hope is that with consequences in place for repeated violations, it will reduce the amount of willful disregard for our rules and increase the opportunity for the public to engage in civil discourse with the council.

I have heard repeatedly from many Richmond residents that they will not attend council meetings because of what they experience as intense hostility and disregard directed toward both councilmembers and the public. None of these individuals believe that their ideas, comments or suggestions would be taken seriously at a meeting that makes a mockery out of the process. I was prompted to take action once again, when I received the following e-mail from an outraged and thoughtful constituent.


Civility for civil servants

Merriam Webster's definition of government is "the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc."  It is commonly accepted that government is necessary to the existence of civilized society.  Add to this the definition of "civilized", which is "marked by well-organized laws and rules about how people behave with each other; polite, reasonable, and respectful" and we come to an understanding that laws and rules are meant to enforce the behaviors enacting the value of respect and to provide consequences for those actions that are willfully disrespectful.

Recently there have been vulgar remarks that have been repeated despite the offender being removed from various meetings. This behavior has continued, resulting in a disruption of the proceedings and a distraction from important issues.  If the process of governing does not reflect how to manage conflicting opinions in a thoughtful, law abiding manner, how can we expect citizens to have confidence that their civic leaders have the capacity and will to enact laws protecting people from the disrespect inherent in all acts of bigotry- racism, sexism, and religious intolerance? We expect our elected officials to have the courage to insist that discourse within the government, especially within a group legislating for a community in need of healing, be observant of the rules of civility and self-control, with the hope that showing respect and consideration at the local level will generalize to the community as a whole and be an example to our young people.

In an ideal world, we would not need rules or laws to provide consequences for behavior that is hurtful to others; an individual would act in a just and ethical way because it was consistent with his/her character.  I choose to believe this is the case for most, but for those who would decide to hurt others in word or deed, I urge the city council to hold in place the existing boundaries for rules of appropriate behavior, providing consequences if necessary, in order to maintain the order and decorum that is due the civil office, its servants and, indeed, all who give their time and effort to the legislative process.

-A concerned constituent and mental health provider


Many readers of Real Talk know that there have been numerous thwarted attempts to bring civility and respect back into the council chamber. This is one more effort that I hope will highlight the voice of the now silenced community members who would like to come forward to participate beyond simply casting their votes at election time. They deserve to be heard throughout the year on issues that are important to them. I hope that you will join me in supporting this item.

- Jovanka Beckles, Richmond Vice Mayor

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