By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Mayor Deanna Reed, one of five candidates contending for three seats on the Harrisonburg City Council, says she has plenty of unfinished business — in part as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Construction on a second high school, for which she advocated, is paused because of the pandemic, and work between the city and nonprofit organizations continues as leaders try to improve services to those experiencing homelessness. And while Reed spent her first four years on council trying to meet the needs of some of the city’s most disadvantaged, now, she said, that includes many small businesses as a result of the pandemic.
“I think this has to be top priority for anyone who is running for city council — is making sure that the city gets through COVID,” Reed told The Citizen. “That our small businesses come back strong. And it’s going to take someone seasoned on council to navigate through that process.”
Affordable housing and homelessness are also foremost on her mind. Besides continuing those monthly stakeholder meetings, Reed is also eager to act on the comprehensive housing study currently being conducted by Mullin & Lonergan Associates, Inc., a housing and development consulting firm based in Camp Hill, Pa.
“Harrisonburg is such a wonderful place to live [that] we want to make sure that people can actually afford to live here,” she said.
Reed said she also wants to establish a housing advisory board, as well as a homeless shelter that would be open year-round. She said the mobilization to operate the normally nomadic shelter organization Open Doors out of JMU’s Godwin Hall during part of the pandemic opened her eyes to what was possible.
“I think that actually showed us what really could happen because we were able to have a big space such as Godwin Hall, have everybody there, have OCP and the Suitcase Clinic and other organizations help maintain that,” Reed said. “Everybody was safe, everybody was fed, everybody was checked for COVID. I mean, that experience kind of showed me, okay, we can do this year-round.”
Finishing construction on the second high school is also a priority.
Education is “my passion, who I am – making sure our children are taken care of, our students, our teachers,” Reed said. “I want to make sure that that project is completed … once we get through COVID.”
A start in community service
Reed is an alumna of Harrisonburg High School, although she attended when it was still housed in the building now known as JMU’s Memorial Hall. The Harrisonburg native attended Radford University after graduation, then spent about 17 years in Charlottesville and six in Richmond working in retail management.
She returned to her hometown in 2012 to help care for her aging grandmother and worked for the Roberta Webb Child Care Center as well as in the city schools as a substitute teacher.
“One of my old high school teachers reached out to me” to tour the current high school, Reed said. “We went downstairs and we walked past the daycare center. And I thought the daycare center was actually for the teachers. And he was like, ‘no, this is for the students.’ I looked in there, there were 11 babies.”
While Reed was glad that service was available to allow young mothers to continue their education, she wondered, “what is going on with our young ladies here in Harrisonburg?”
She began researching and found that Harrisonburg had one of the higher rates of teen pregnancy in the state, which led her to establish Ruby Slippers, an after-school program for 4th- and 5th-grade girls. In 2015, she teamed up with fellow Harrisonburg High School graduate Brent Holsinger to expand that vision, and the On the Road Collaborative was born. Reed is now their director of community and school partnerships.
“Deanna was the perfect match to serve as On the Road Collaborative’s founding program director,” Holsinger wrote to The Citizen in an email. “She brought experience and a deep belief in our mission to empower youth with equal access to educational opportunities.”
What began as a grassroots program for 5th graders at Skyline Middle School now serves more than 300 middle and high school students each year with 30 employees.
Helping lead a changing city
As Reed was developing these programs, she began attending city council meetings. Something stood out to her.
“I looked up at the dais, and I was like, ‘oh, men are still running Harrisonburg. Just like it was when I was here as a teenager,” Reed said. She discovered there had only been a few female council members in Harrisonburg’s history, and they had all been white. That, plus Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, motivated her to run for a seat on the council.
She received more than 9,000 votes in 2016 — the most of any candidate in that election.
“I think I just brought a different voice to the table, and I represent the people … the voices that were never really heard,” she said.
Her presence on the council, alongside Council Member Chris Jones and Vice-mayor Sal Romero, is emblematic of the city’s changing demographics. Reed said it’s important that Black and brown children see them in these leadership positions.
“When I was growing up, it was … just white and Black, that was the diversity. You know, now we’ve got 60 different languages spoken in our school system,” Reed said. “I’m glad to say that at least the council is starting to look like the city that we serve.”
Holsinger said Reed’s leadership and care for the community serves both On the Road Collaborative and the city at large.
“Deanna is a genuine leader who is the same person regardless of the setting that she is in,” he wrote. “She is accessible, listens and takes action to make Harrisonburg a thriving, more equitable city.”
Reed said listening is one of the most important skills to have in local government.
“As a public servant, elected official, you have to be a good listener. Because people want to feel that they’re heard, and that’s really it … the council works for the people,” she said. “So you can’t shut them down, you can’t not hear them. But there’s a way that you listen to people. You need to really hear how they feel and what they’re going through.”
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