I believe that the first line of representative democracy occurs at the neighborhood level. Neighborhood associations, churches, and local interest groups provide the vital links in the chain of representation between the individual and his or her government be it local, state or federal government. This chain of representation is oiled by communication and reasoned dialogue. I believe that communication and reason produce action in the public interest and prevent the policy paralysis of personal interest. Today however, that belief was tested.
Today was the culmination of three months of communication and reason for the location of a drug treatment center located on East 11th street just east of I-35. The center was to provide individual and group therapy for those convicted of felony drug and alcohol related crimes. No individuals with additional mental health or violent records were to be served. The center was to be located within a building owned by the Ebenezer Baptist Church. The congregation was an enthusiastic supporter of the program. One neighborhood association, however, was adamantly opposed. They feared increased drug crime and eroding safety for their children due to the center. When presented with data showing the probability of reduced crime due to the center, they turned to fears of increased traffic and parking problems. When presented with commitments for upper limits on the daily numbers of clients to be served and adequate parking arrangements for staff and clients, they turned to accusations that the public input process had been inadequate despite nearly three months of meetings, phone calls, e-mails, surveys and Q&A. They did not argue that the service was not needed by our community. They simply did not want this service provided in their neighborhood.
One tactic used in their argument against the location was particularly disturbing – the tactic of “villainizing.” Not all but most of the residents used this tactic to varying degrees. One target was the government itself through accusations that the process had not been adequate or that commitments would not be kept. But more troubling was the villainizing of the clients expected to be served. Implied in the fears expressed was that people with drug and alcohol addictions are evil. In my personal and professional experience, drug and alcohol addiction is an equal opportunity affliction. Those who are addicted to drink or drugs are not by definition violent, pedophilic or homeless. In fact, just as we are all sinners, I suggest that most of us are drug or alcohol felons. Who among us has not driven while “buzzed”? Who among us has not “experimented” with illegal drugs? Who among us has not “borrowed” a prescription pain killer? And, who among us does not know and love someone who has?
Compassion. Reason. Action. This holiday season let’s spread those gifts around.