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REPRESENTATION

REPRESENTATION

Continuing the series of the key ideals and principles of Democracy I began earlier this year, the spotlight this month is on ‘Representation’ … and very timely on several levels.

The principle of Representation within Democracy is fundamental to the functioning of democratic systems around the world. At its core, representation ensures that the diverse voices, interests, and perspectives of a population are effectively conveyed and accounted for in the decision-making processes of government.

There are several key aspects to the principle of representation within democracy. Please note the “people” emphasis in terms such as “constituents”, “citizens”, “electorate”, and “all individuals” to fully recognize where the true power resides within our Democracy.

Popular Sovereignty: Democracy is based on the concept of popular sovereignty, which means that ultimate authority and power reside with the people. Through representation, citizens delegate authority to elected officials to act on their behalf in making laws and policies.

Elected Representatives: In a representative democracy, citizens elect individuals and rely on political parties to represent their interests and preferences in legislative bodies such as federal and state congresses or county and town boards. These representatives are accountable to their constituents and are expected to act in their best interests.

Accountability: Elected representatives are accountable to the electorate for their actions and decisions. They are subject to regular elections, where citizens can evaluate their performance and either re-elect them or choose new representatives. This accountability ensures that representatives remain responsive to the needs and concerns of the people they represent.

Inclusivity and Diversity: Representation ensures that the diversity of society is reflected in the decision-making process. This includes diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and other factors. By electing representatives from different backgrounds and perspectives, a democratic system can better address the varied needs and interests of its citizens.

Deliberation and Debate: Within representative democracies, elected representatives engage in deliberation and debate to reach decisions on behalf of the electorate. This process allows for the exchange of ideas, the consideration of different viewpoints, and the negotiation of compromises, ultimately leading to more informed and inclusive decision-making.

Protection of Minority Rights: Representation helps safeguard the rights of minority groups within society. Elected representatives are tasked with protecting the interests of ALL citizens, including those who may be marginalized or underrepresented. By giving voice to minority perspectives, representation helps prevent the tyranny of the majority and ensures that all individuals are treated fairly and equitably under the law.

Overall, the principle of representation is essential to the functioning of democracy, as it ensures that government is responsive, accountable, and inclusive, reflecting the will and interests of the people it serves.

To further define Representation from a Native American perspective, indigenous elder, Episcopal bishop, and author Steven Charleston in his book, ‘Ladder to the Light (pg. 112)’, writes:

“If (Native American leaders) in the traditional sense, were engineers. If they could convince people they had a bright idea for fixing a problem or dealing with a need, then people would entrust them to do that for as long as it took… but leaders knew their positions would be temporary. Once the job was done, they would return to the collective, the extended family of the nation. This time limit was critical for a spiritual reason: my ancestors understood that the only natural predator of truth in the jungle of politics is power.”

There is tremendous wisdom in what Charleston says, especially in his last few words warning that if elected representatives attempt to retain power ‘beyond their time’ and use political positions for their own personal objectives, how that will corrupt our Democracy.

Even Benjamin Franklin discovered the beauty and originality of the Native American form of representative government. For example, he was impressed by the Iroquois Confederacy’s political system and noted: “For all their government is by the Council or advice of the sages; there is no force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment.”

The Native American type of government helped inspire the U.S. Constitution and although the constitutional framers may have viewed Indigenous people of the Iroquois Confederacy wrongfully as inferior, that didn’t stop them from admiring their federalist principles (see https://www.history.com/news/iroquois-confederacy-influence-us-constitution). Something to ponder during this important election year.

Now I would like to move this discussion to a real-world “representation” situation which also incorporates an update on the Pines of Perinton (‘POP’; see 2.14.24 blog post). This is from the perspective of Ms. Tiffany Porter the primary, long-time advocate for POP residents at this more than 50-year-old low-income housing complex comprised of around 1200 very diverse people residing in over 500 apartments.

First, please see a recent investigative report on the POP in the Rochester Beacon (https://rochesterbeacon.com/2024/03/14/problems-at-the-pines/). The article provides some details regarding the history of the POP and the current renovation project and while many of the issues highlighted are being remedied, there remains a lot to be done as the project still has about two years to go until completion.

Ms. Porter is quoted in the article as am I and several others. Towards the conclusion of the article, the reporter left unsettled a difference of opinion between Ms. Porter and a Winn executive quoted in the article. It reads as follows:

When told of Porter’s assertions about possible biases against the Pines’ residents, Bora (a Winn executive) declared them to be wrong.

“I’m very sorry to hear that Tiffany feels that way,” Bora says. “This is absolutely not true. Each resident is treated equally and fairly.”

She also rejected the idea that the Pines has retaliated against tenants who have complained about the conditions of their apartments. “I am not aware of any retaliation that’s ever occurred against a resident at the Pines or in any other property that we manage,” Bora says. “Residents are the eyes and ears of the community; we want to have and maintain a constructive relationship with every household at the Pines.”

This was the extent of what the reporter presented on “possible biases against Pines residents” and the article left it as an open-ended matter.

So, who’s right and who’s wrong? This is no easy question to answer since terms like “equally and fairly” and “retaliated against” can each be taken differently depending on the person, can have subtle or nuanced interpretations, and in virtually all cases there is no paper trail or documentation to support the pejorative claim. So, it essentially comes down to one person’s word or opinion vs. another. 

I personally was left dissatisfied with how this part of the article was handled. For example, by showing the picture of the white, female Winn executive next to some of her words as quoted above, I believe subtly positions her in a dominant and arguably more credible perspective to the casual reader. Plus the fact that this part of the article concluded with the Winn executive’s statement thus perhaps giving the impression of hers being the ‘last word’ on the matter.

To provide a clearer picture on where Ms. Porter is coming from not only with her POP experiences but her life in general as a Black person living in the overwhelmingly white community of Perinton, I offer the following in her voice and introduced by some of mine. Ms. Porter spoke at the March 13, 2024 Perinton Town Board meeting and the next day I wrote the following email to the Town Board:

Last evening’s Town Board meeting was quite revealing, especially as related to the “Woodcliff” discussion (about a proposed apartment building complex in an exclusive part of Perinton). I (Bill Wynne) asked Tiffany Porter if I could share her public comments she made to you and I’ve added some terms in brackets for additional clarity. Here is what she said to you as follows:

“So, I’ve heard about the one-on-one meetings with (Woodcliff) residents and the onsite reviews you’ve conducted numerous times. Let’s compare the differences (with the residents of the Pines of Perinton). By the way, I’m probably part of the “mob” you were referring to. These folks (Woodcliff residents) came nice and it didn’t not work well for them. I think next time you will see more of the angrier part of that mob kinda like how it ended.

I want (you) to understand the distinctions between the folks in Woodcliff and those in the Pines. If people haven’t been tuning in to our biweekly program, they might not be aware that an existing apartment complex (Pines) with residents isn’t receiving more attention than the proposed (Woodcliff) complex. Does that make sense?

The residents in this town are getting priced out and need more options. It’s worth noting that the town’s affluence is a result of its expansion.

Now, this town is expanding, and we’re facing a housing crisis. What I’m hearing is that some people don’t seem to care about the crisis as long as they can enjoy nature trails and rural areas. I understand that not everyone might recognize how subtle racism and classism operates, but I’d like to point out that what we heard tonight was a prime example.

Often referred to as the “Great White Fear”, these fears can often be rooted in subtle racism, particularly when they are based on stereotypes or assumptions about certain racial or ethnic groups moving into the neighborhood. The fear of property values decreasing or the neighborhood’s quality of life declining due to increased diversity reflects underlying biases and prejudices. Additionally, opposition to affordable housing or resistance to zoning changes that would allow for more diverse housing options can perpetuate racial segregation and inequity.

Here are a few facts for everyone: green spaces aren’t always environmentally friendly. Homes will not get devalued the way the economy is working, they’ll probably increase. It is a common belief that affordable housing, including residential care facilities and supportive housing, will lower neighboring property values. However, numerous studies conducted over a period of many years and in various locations find that this widely held preconception is incorrect.

When I say get some equity training in the works, it would involve these discussions and the stigmas with housing.” (Conclusion of Ms. Porter’s public comments on March 13th)

I (Bill Wynne) hope you (Town Board) take Tiffany’s words and overall message and words to heart. Here are some of my own thoughts:

  • I trust you realize that terms such as “high density”, “increased traffic”, “downgrading of aesthetics”, “apartment complexes” in contrast to the type of single-family homes in that area, and “values decreasing” as Tiffany pointed out, and other terms expressed last evening are all forms of “code talk” that to the ears of many “others” in the Community comes across as biased, discriminatory, classist, and racist rhetoric
  • The ad lib about those Woodcliff speakers not coming/speaking out as a “mob” (like those at other Town Board meetings) was unnecessary, pejorative, and warrants an apology
  • Overall, the “NIMBY” (“not in my back yard”) attitude among the Woodcliff residents was painful to listen to and the Board is to be commended for approving this project at this stage “on merit”
  • Unfortunately, and tragically, NIMBY-ism is prevalent throughout this country, but in many cases is now turning to YIMBY-ism, or “YES in my backyard”.
  • And this is due not only to the tremendous housing crisis across this country, but also reflective of some of Tiffany’s points, as well as the many benefits achieved in diverse, robust communities that are not homogeneously, primarily white.
  • This is the wave and direction of this country and hopefully Perinton can be a model in this regard; and I hope for the same result will happen at next week’s Planning Board hearing re: the Jefferson Rd/31f low-income housing project (Update note: the project was approved)
  • And please do not be influenced by claims that any movement of more affordable and low-income housing is a “plight” being forced on Perinton and “why not other Towns?”. That’s an argument without merit given other initiatives across the County, and even if that wasn’t the case, it would demonstrate Perinton’s responsiveness to a huge problem, commitment to its Comprehensive Plan, as well as show its heart and compassion. Said another way, the Town should be proud of dealing directly with what some may call a plight.
  • Lastly and another hope that the Town is reaching out to Monroe County on its recent announcement of a $7.8m Affordable Housing initiative

On a separate topic, I continue to be dismayed by the Town’s at least public appearance of no concern or empathy regarding the recent asbestos contamination exposure at the Pines and its potential physical and mental health and safety risks for hundreds of Town residents. I’ve heard anecdotally that perhaps the technical matter of NYS’s work stoppage order may be over, but I strongly encourage you, on what appears to be a Board walkthrough you are planning, to ask about this incident with any residents you might meet. And please don’t be surprised if they don’t know anything about it… there are reasons for that as you should be aware. That’s the least you can do.

Until the next meeting … peace … Bill

(Updated Footnote: On 3.18.24, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was banning asbestos and was already partly banned, but which is still used in a few products. More than 50 other countries already ban it. Exposure to asbestos is known to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, ovarian cancer, and laryngeal cancer, and it is linked to more than 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. See https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/biden-harris-administration-finalizes-ban-ongoing-uses-asbestos-protect-people-cancer)

Then on March 15, 2024, Ms. Porter wrote her own email to the Town Board as follows:

“Hello Everyone,

It’s taken me a day, and I’m still processing Wednesday’s meeting. Thank you, Bill, for the follow-up email and for summarizing my views. I’d like to add to it. During the meeting, I refrained from delving into my emotions because the hearing dragged on, and I didn’t want to break down in tears, hindering your ability to hear my words.

What I gathered from the discussion about the Woodcliff residences is that Mr. Hannah (in his words) took it upon himself to visit without an invitation, whereas I’ve been urging you all for weeks to take the initiative, reach out to the Pines Tenant Association, and set up a meeting. You have the power to arrange a meeting with the (Pines) property advocates and inquire about the association’s involvement.

For about 30 minutes, I watched my neighbors in this town stand up and, as Bill mentioned, use coded language to oppose the construction of a high-end market-value apartment complex. Their behavior led me to believe it was an affordable housing complex, given their vehement objections. Their audacity and absurdity were beyond belief.

Imagine living your entire life in a town where you’re made to feel like you don’t belong, attending school without seeing yourself represented accurately, and feeling like an outsider in community spaces. This has been my reality for a lifetime. I’ve had to adjust my speech to ensure you listen, tone down my blackness to be heard, and I refuse to do so because you can see me perfectly well. I’m emotionally invested in affordable housing and equity because of my experiences growing up in Perinton, a town that made it abundantly clear they didn’t want Black people here. I don’t want anyone else to endure what I went through—the trauma, the suicidal ideation stemming from the macro and micro aggressions, most of which occurred in this town.

While our community is undoubtedly wonderful, there’s work to be done—work we have solutions for but that you, Mr. Hannah, as leader of this town, choose to ignore. No one should feel like they don’t belong, whether they’re longtime residents or just visiting. On Wednesday, I broke down and cried, and on Thursday, I cried some more. How much longer do I have to endure this until you realize things need to change? How much trauma and loss must occur before you acknowledge the racial and class injustices in this town?

Two things can be true: it can be a great place to live and the worst place for some people. It should be a great place for everyone. When you visit the Pines, I urge you to schedule time with the assistant DEI Superintendent of our (school) district and her staff and inquire about the experiences of black, brown, disabled, and/or queer students who are made to feel like they don’t belong in our community. Ask how many students have been subjected to racial slurs or derogatory remarks based on their residence. Then, as leaders of one of the greatest towns to live in, reflect on whether you’re representing (Bill Wynne emphasis) everyone or just those who are friendly to you.

I wish you all a wonderful weekend, and I’ll be there with my “mob” for the next meeting. Mr. Hannah, I appreciate Bill’s request for an apology, but I don’t need one. I believe you were speaking your truth, and there’s no need to apologize to me for that.”

Tiffany Porter (Founder, Being Black in the Burbs & Accomplices & Cofounder of The Fairport Coalition)

So now, I encourage you to ask yourself: how do you see Ms. Porter’s and the POP residents truly being “represented” by the Town and WinnCompanies (owner and property manager of the POP)? …  at least historically speaking since perhaps things are finally changing. However, Tiffany’s experience, as well as that of POP residents, suggests that change is not happening fast enough and they no doubt pray that whatever change occurs does in fact endure.

History can shine a flashlight on the disappointment that typically has followed hopeful promises. It also suggests that Pines residents are a community accustomed to struggle. Their destiny heretofore has been to face the powers of injustice and privilege on their own without any collective representation … and doing that is no ‘sing-along’ as the asbestos issue suggests as just one example. So, I encourage others reading this to step up with your own “representative” voices and energy where you can in support of the Pines residents as well as Tiffany.

Some closing thoughts related to this post:

  • I believe there is an opportunity with the recent formation of the Pines Tenant Association (PTA) for improved communications with the Town and I will be suggesting this to both the PTA and the Town Board.
  • Regarding Tiffany, my wife and I recently saw the movie ‘Cabrini’ (which I highly recommend). It tells the story of Mother Cabrini, a determined, resolute, Italian immigrant nun who spoke “truth to power” in the late 19th century like Tiffany has in her recent public comments and email to the Town Board. In the closing scene of the movie with the fictional mayor of New York City, Mother Cabrini and the mayor acknowledge their newfound understanding. However, the mayor drops a very patriarchal observation onto the headstrong and stubborn future saint, a woman who works tirelessly and won’t take no for an answer. He cluelessly says “It’s too bad you’re not a man; you would’ve been an excellent man.”  In response, Mother Cabrini simply and correctively reminds him that “a man could never do what she and her sisters do!” That statement profoundly sums up what this famous nun accomplished and I believe Tiffany and her work in Perinton, and beyond, lives within the Mother Cabrini spirit.
  • It should be noted that Mother Cabrini was eventually proclaimed the first saint ever in the United States by the Roman Catholic Church and was subsequently selected as the patron saint for immigrants.
  • This segues to a fascinating thought about immigration that I cobbled together from various readings: “We are a country of immigrants, and in fact our ancestors could be considered the first “illegals” since they were trespassers on sovereign Native American land!” I’d be interested in any comments on this.
  • Two prayers re: Justice & Representation “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed.” (Proverbs 31:8); and, “The way we live our lives today will guide how others live their lives in the future. God, help me to set an example of how to treat others. Help me to be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Help me to set a legacy of justice.” (from ‘Strength For Today — for Men’)

Enough for this post … until next time… PEACE! ….

Bill Wynne

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