Community members tackle race, equity during diversity commission listening session

Lynnwood resident Wally Webster (bottom) speaks to city officials and members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission during the city’s July 1 virtual listening session. (Image courtesy of the City of Lynnwood)

Seeking input on how to make Lynnwood a safer and more equitable city, elected officials joined members of the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission recently for a public listening session.

More than 70 community members attended the city’s July 1 virtual session. Civic leaders including Mayor Nicola Smith, Lynnwood City Council members and Lynnwood police chief Tom Davis opened the floor for residents and community members to identify institutional barriers to accessing city services and programs and offer advice on ways to provide a more inclusive approach to community engagement.

“In Lynnwood, we’ve come a long way of implementing racial and social equity measures, but we fully recognize that this work is ongoing and there’s still a long way to go,” Mayor Smith said. “We’re committed to doing more — to truly making sure our city is a safe, welcoming city and equitable for all.”

According to Smith, the city has taken steps in recent years to make working in city departments more equitable and welcoming. The Lynnwood Employees Embracing Diversity (LEED) committee has been working to diversify the city’s recruiting and hiring process. The committee also provides city employees with training and other avenues to normalize talking about race and inequities and finding solutions to create justice.

The city also recently joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national organization that works with governments to help advance racial equity at the local government level. Lynnwood was the first city in Snohomish County to become a GARE member. The city’s GARE team consists of 12 employees – each representing a city department, and each at various levels of the organization — who come from diverse backgrounds.

The July 1 session was moderated by the city’s Human Resources Director Evan Chin, who also serves as a staff liaison to the DEI commission. Speakers were given three minutes to make their comments.

First to speak was Ashkan Amouzegar, a Lynnwood resident who previously served on the DEI commission. He asked how the commission will work with the city to diversify the police department, which only has one Black police officer.

He also said it was unacceptable the city council is predominantly white and suggested that the two most senior councilmembers who identify as white resign immediately.

Amouzegar also called for Councilmember Jim Smith to step down from his position and that DEI Chair Naz Lashgari replace him. Lashgari ran against Smith last year for the council’s vacant Position 4 seat along with Amouzegar and three other candidates. According to Amouzegar, Lashgari — who did not make it through the August primary election — would have won had she not been defeated by her white male opponents.

“As you look at the white council, that is white supremacy by definition,” he said. “All you have to do is stand in front of those (councilmember) photos and look to see what is there as leadership of this city, and it’s just not acceptable.”

Beverly Elementary School teacher Aaron Holder said in order to move forward, the city needs to recognize that a lot of society was built on systemic racism that needs to be undone.

“If we’re not intentionally trying to dismantle that, then we’re really not meeting the needs of our community,” he said. “Particularly when we’re talking about what we can do and how we can allocate funds. We should be thinking about what we want for the people in this community and how we want to hold each other.”

During her comments, Lynnwood resident Jeanne Crevier said the first step to addressing the problem is listening. She commended the city for having the session and suggested the city develop a diversity lens to use in all it does. According to Crevier, that means “to look at every aspect of city government and city management and determine ‘how would this feel if I was different from who I am?’”

Brandon Dunkin said the city should not assume it’s ahead of the curve when addressing systemic racism, and that Lynnwood needs to take a critical look at itself.

“We should not assume that we have escaped (systemic racism) unless we have data and strong communications and outreach to people of color within our communities that say that we’re not (systemically racist),” he said.

Lynnwood resident Liz V. (whose last name was not given) requested that the city council review the police department’s budget for the upcoming biennium and consider reallocating. money to fund another social worker to respond to non-violent calls instead of police. Currently, the department has one social worker – shared with the City of Edmonds — who assists with outreach to people experiencing homelessness and suffering from substance abuse issues.

Ashley Kay Smith has lived in Lynnwood for two years and said that as a Black resident she doesn’t feel safe living in the city. Smith said she doesn’t feel like she can move freely in the city without being target for racial profiling. Since the public health district advised wearing masks, Smith said she’s afraid to leave her house.

“If I walk into a store or I’m walking down the street, someone’s going to think that I’m coming to do something I’m not while wearing a mask,” she said.

Additionally, Smith said she has been stopped multiple times by police while driving. Though she’s never been issued a ticket, she said she was always stopped  for “small things.” Smith said she also supported defunding the police department and that only having one Black police officer was “basically white supremacy.”

Smith added that as a person of color, she did not feel represented by the predominantly white city council.

Wally Webster, who has lived in Lynnwood for 42 years, said it will be difficult to make effective change in the city because it does not have a cause to rally behind, like a person of color killed by a white police officer or a controversial state flag. According to Webster, this makes Lynnwood more complacent toward change.

“It’s very difficult to embrace change when you don’t have change staring you in the face and you don’t have these overt issues that are being experienced around other parts of the country,” he said.

However, Webster said he believed Lynnwood is still capable of making “bold” decisions. He suggested city officials not wait for the federal or state government to ban police chokeholds and instead issue its own ban within the city.

“I believe that Lynnwood has the greatest challenges of all now that it can make bold and bodacious decisions that will improve and ensure it is a welcoming, safe city, not just today, but going forward,” he said.

Some changes have already been made in response to concerns about how people of color are treated by police. Last month, the Edmonds School Board voted to remove school resource officers (SROs) from three district high schools. A fourth SRO is still placed at Lynnwood High School pending review of a safety plan for the campus in the event of an emergency.

During the listening session, Michelle Kowalczyk spoke out in favor of the board’s decision to remove SROs from the schools. She also encouraged the board to vote to remove the final SRO at Lynnwood High. Instead of contracting with local agencies to provide SROs, Kowalczyk suggested the district use the funds to hire more counselors.

According to district spokesperson Amanda Ralston, the district spent just over $300,000 for the four SROs under contract, which she said roughly translates to about two full-time certificated counselors.

In a statement issued earlier this week, Mayor Smith pledged her commitment to stand with communities of color and other marginalized groups.

“We’ve come a long way but recognize that there is still a long way to go,” she said. “Lynnwood community members — be brave, be open to hearing stories, ideas and new perspectives from people of color and those who are marginalized.”

Smith’s statement also said city staff will continue to host listening sessions and invited community members to offer feedback on the city website regarding how Lynnwood can move racial equity forward.

— By Cody Sexton

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