Many sparks needed to ignite a fire of change
Members of the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force held their first comprehensive public meeting Thursday night since releasing their final report and recommendations last February, and an important perspective was missing — yours.
The SET Task Force, as it is called, was formed in the fall of 2015, a collaborative and community effort endorsed by the Cedar Rapids Community School District, city and county. Cedar Rapids and the metro area was reeling at that time due to a variety of violent crimes, in particular a rash of “shots fired” incidents. But it was the shooting death of Aaron Richardson, a 15-year-old, by Robert Humbles, a then 14-year-old, near Redmond Park in September 2015 that ultimately coalesced political will and led to the formation of the task force.
The 24-member group chose to separate into subcommittees that would study six aspects of the community — outreach and community engagement, economic opportunities, education, housing, programming and law enforcement. More members of the community were gathered to explore each area and, months later, a final list of recommendations was presented to school and government officials and to the community.
Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker and Coe College visiting professor Dr. Mary Wilcynski, who jointly led the SET Task Force, have pledged that the group’s research and findings won’t be set on a shelf to gather dust, which brings us to the Thursday night gathering at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
“This is really a dangerous thing for an elected official to help lead,” Walker told me at the meeting. Those who appear on ballots, he said, often seek clear and definitive successes that can be presented to voters.
“What we’re really talking about is shifting the culture of this community,” he said. “You know, years ago, no one thought much about lighting a cigarette in a public place, but now that is frowned upon. That’s a cultural shift, and those types of changes don’t happen quickly — and, often, not easily either.”
Changing the culture of a community means attacking issues from multiple fronts. As Police Chief Wayne Jerman, an ex officio member of the SET Task Force present at the Thursday night meeting, has said repeatedly, there is no magic wand that will slow or halt violence. Addressing community concerns requires consideration of how and why poverty, housing, transportation, family relationships and education contribute. And, in order to do that, everyone needs to be part of the discussion.
Speaking through a sign language interpreter, one Cedar Rapids resident explained his frustration with a landlord who has denied his request for smoke alarms with audio and visual emergency alerts. While existing policies may provide a path to such safety accommodations, they’re of little use if the tenant has no knowledge of the process.
Down the hall, as community members debated the benefits of co-opting a statewide 2-1-1 program to connect people to available resources or creating a Linn County-specific initiative, three young women were bewildered. Not only were they unaware of 2-1-1, they had a difficult time understanding the words chosen to identify the types of programs offered.
Little sparks of similar understanding erupted throughout the library Thursday night, all courtesy of people who chose to sit down and have a discussion. But it’s going to take many more sparks to ignite a fire of change.
As with nearly all such community initiatives, certain groups are well represented. City staff and elected officials are always on hand. It’s difficult to shake a stick without striking representatives from the nonprofit sector. When the subject is housing, landlords and developers show up. Teachers and school representatives join discussions on education. These are the usual suspects and, no doubt, they are close to the issues and should have a seat at the table.
But these generally well-intended people also have contributed to and are largely responsible for the status quo. Because they’ve shown up, they are the ones who have built the systems and processes we have now — the ones now targeted for change.
To get to the goal of a cultural shift and, more important, to make sure any such shift is to the benefit of all residents, more perspectives are required. Your perspective is required.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Nov. 19, 2017.