The personal anecdotes recounted during Vancouver’s listening sessions on race and policing last week were “heartbreaking,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said, even as she regarded the overall conversations as constructive.
“It was hard,” McEnerny-Ogle said, adding that she heard from some people of color about discrimination they’d faced in Vancouver. “It’s a fearfulness of your everyday life.”
Last week, city leaders including McEnerny-Ogle, Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain and a few other city councilors and officials participated in three virtual roundtables with residents to discuss racial justice and police brutality.
The first session, on Wednesday, drew 17 participants. A second session on Thursday drew more than 30, and the third event on Friday was exclusively for members of the Vancouver chapter of the NAACP. Some of the sessions’ registered participants declined to speak, choosing instead to listen.
“I think they were pretty constructive. We had some individuals who are absolutely passionate about some issues,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “We were there to listen and learn. It was very intense.”
Originally, the sessions were going to be recorded and publicly broadcast on Clark/Vancouver Television. In the wake of George Floyd’s recorded death in police custody, other communities have held such conversations in public, with mixed results.
But the day before the first session, Vancouver leaders changed course, electing to keep the sessions private. In a public statement, the city announced that the decision was meant to create “a safe space for our residents who wish to speak about race, racism and racial justice issues.”
The announcement drew both praise and criticism online. Some residents expressed frustration with the decision, pointing to the reduction in transparency.
It’s a tricky balance, McEnerny-Ogle acknowledged. To help allay public transparency concerns, she said, the city engaged third parties to take notes. Those notes — sans names and other identifying information — will be released publicly, likely in early July, she said.
“It’ll be an opportunity for everyone to hear the themes, maybe not the names connected to them, but certainly the themes, the key messages,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
“Is it important you know which grocery store caused the problem for a certain individual? Probably not. That it happened? Yes,” she added. “What policy that the city needs to work on? Absolutely.”
According to City Manager Eric Holmes, the city contracted with public engagement firm Kearns and West to facilitate the listening sessions. McEnerny-Ogle said the city also engaged Rekah Strong, vice chair of the Clark College Board of Trustees, to transcribe the conversations.
Strong was asked to be “an independent listener,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
A general outline of the first session is already available online at www.beheardvancouver.org/racialjustice. According to that document, participants in Wednesday’s roundtable discussed the need for more citizen oversight of the Vancouver Police Department. Several speakers also brought up the danger posed by white supremacist groups prevalent in the Vancouver area.
“I was really pleased and humbled by how honest and clear but kind people were. Folks shared some pretty personal experiences, of just what it’s like to be a person of color living in Vancouver. I appreciate people’s willingness to do that,” Holmes said.
City leaders haven’t ruled out the possibility of holding more listening sessions, including some that would be broadcast.
There aren’t any public forums scheduled yet, Holmes clarified. A few city councilors are planning closed conversations with local organizations, including the Southwest Washington chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Noble Foundation and Southwest Washington Communities United for Change.
“Each one of these has been a step in a learning process. There’s been interest in the community in these general sessions, and then we have more focused ones,” Holmes said.
McEnerny-Ogle said she plans to turn some of the sessions’ takeaways into actionable items.
She compared the city’s next step with a systems audit, scrutinizing the elements of government that could be leaving marginalized communities behind.
“It’s not just the police. It might be, what barrier have we set in place for Parks and Recreation? Children who need to register for day camp and they don’t have internet, for example… as we look at all our policies and procedures, our different codes, our hiring practices, our housing — where do our affordable housing dollars go, who is using them?” she asked. “Are they best practices? Are they current practices?”