By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor
A month after coming up with the idea for a new citizen-driven commission to push for racial justice in the Valley, organizers of the new People’s Equality Commission of the Shenandoah Valley are setting their sights on creating public forums to amplify residents’ voices.
This new commission, created June 12, evolved as an outgrowth of the protests for racial justice this summer. In fact, after the question “What do we do next?” arose at one of the rallies, it inspired longtime activist Stan Maclin. He said creating an outlet that focuses on the perspective of people of color in the Valley was a “no brainer.”
Maclin, president of the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center, said the equality commission was born to ensure the calls for change and racial justice that echoed across rallies and protests this summer would be heard.
Maclin said in an interview last week that he wants the commission to host forums across the city to gather input from the entire community. During the forums, Maclin wants to ask questions like: How do you feel about your local government?
“We want to take questions directly to the people,” said Maclin, a chairman on the commission. “We want to give people an opportunity to have a voice, to address civic leaders and work with some of the areas where institutional and systemic racism does exist to make a difference.”
With the uncertainties of COVID-19, Maclin said dates for these forums aren’t set yet.
Despite the “itchy” conversations that may come with these forums, like discussing the disproportionate amount of use-of-force encounters made by police against Black people in Harrisonburg, Maclin said it’s necessary to undergo some uncomfortable moments to accomplish change.
“We can talk about the issues that make us itch,” Maclin said. “And be willing together to scratch the itch.”
Specifically, the People’s Equality Commission wants to increase the amount of engagement and influence citizens have with local politics.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to work together with like-minded people who want to make a difference and are tired of the systemic racism that confronts us on a daily basis,” Maclin said.
When it comes to other projects, group members remain hopeful but unsure of what the future holds.
“We want to just aim high and go slow,” Maclin said. “Right now we’re doing everything we can to set up to strengthen the commission.”
Another objective for the equality commission is to give citizens a greater voice with the Community Criminal Justice Board, which is made up of 14 members who are mostly public officials or connected to the judicial system. The board reviews jail and court statistics and related policies.
As mentioned in the open letter to City Council published June 8 by Ivan Christo and Trevor Chase, members of the People’s Equality Commission, citizens are calling upon the CCJB to add citizens on the board who aren’t members of the judicial system to “maintain impartiality.”
While working with and forming subcommittees on the CCJB is one of the commission’s goals, Chase said the group needs to gain more manpower before tackling that project. Now, the top priority for the commission is creating public forums where locals can gather and share their perspectives on issues like housing, education, healthcare and policing.
Chase said instead of speaking to city leaders, these forums will allow the chance for thoughtful conversations with the community and officials.
“We really want to stick to … amplifying the voices from this conversation to really take what people are saying,” Chase said, “and just putting it in writing and crafting a message that is from the community.”
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