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05
Tue, Jul

Neighborhood Councils: Overturning a Policy of InCivility

ACCORDING TO LIZ - Survival of the fittest is a phrase derived from Darwin’s theory of evolution under which only the most successful will reproduce. 

As human society evolved, some – those whose brains were more developed than their biceps – realized that the only way for mankind to rise above the brutality of its animal origins, was to establish and enforce social norms to protect the physically weaker but still valuable members of society. 

First this was through strong leaders with warriors who kept order because at peace people generated more profit. As human society became more complex, alliances were formed and hierarchies established. 

Inequity can spur competition and improve our lives, but without the rules a civilized society chooses to adopt, its stronger members will increasingly abuse the weaker. 

In recent years, the ability to criticize widely using social media so that the perpetrators are physically remote from those they attack has given rise to increased aggression. 

And demands for protection by limiting people’s freedom of speech. 

And while it may not be a physical risk, the psychological damage of removing cherished freedoms of the many to protect the sensitivities of a few can tear out the underpinnings of who we believe we are and the value we have in today’s world. 

A case in point are the proposed revisions to the Neighborhood Council Code of Conduct that, in trying to be everything to all people, are alienating many of the most valuable members of that community. 

The Past

In March 12, 2004, lawyer and writer Don Farkas in sent an opinion e-mail “Problems at Neighborhood Councils” to Allen Freehling, who in 2002 had been appointed Executive Director of the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission by Mayor James K. Hahn. That e-mail included the following: 

… Unfortunately, many community members have complained that their local Neighborhood Councils have become ineffectual and dysfunctional. 

… They cite complaints that members must frequently bend to the will of DONE and other City officials, or else risk suffering bureaucratic retaliation, such as becoming "blacklisted" from any future cooperation by those officials. Such bullying tactics, they say, are common towards anyone who gains a reputation for expressing independent viewpoints. 

… Although bullying tactics such as being put "out of the loop", are sometimes casually dismissed as "just politics", the practice has a "chilling effect" on the expression of lawful ideas and viewpoints by Neighborhood Council members. The end result of widespread and unrestrained practices of political retaliation by public officials is to make a mockery of the right of free speech and to call into question the very legitimacy of any "advice" provided by the Neighborhood Councils. 

He goes on to point out that the foregoing has contributed to “an exodus of many "burned-out" members… [including some of] the Neighborhood Councils' most active and effective participants.” 

And that “our current system lacks any effective checks and balances on the easily abused power of public officials to bully their way by blacklisting, blackballing, or boycotting others who challenge them.” 

Sounds awfully like what the Neighborhood Council system is facing today, over 18 years later. 

The Present

Proposed changes to the Neighborhood Council Code of Conduct specifically refer to the Mayor calling for efforts to “ensure fairness, diversity, equal opportunity, and transparency… to protect NC board members from “harassment, hazing, bullying, and inequitable conduct” – very worthy goals. 

But these have yet to be explicitly enshrined in an official Workplace Equity Policy, let alone approved. 

Conspiracy theorists argue that the intent of the revisions to the Code of Conduct was to hobble Neighborhood Council’s effectiveness in communicating stakeholder concerns to the City government. 

A broader spectrum of Angelenos criticize its impact as written on the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States including freedom of speech, the need for probable cause for accusations, and the rights to counsel and to confront ones accusers before being penalized. 

One definition of micro-aggressions, a word coined in the 1970s the use of which has proliferated in the past few years with the me-too movements and now enshrined in the revisions to the Code of Conduct, is unintentional verbal or behavioral conduct.  

How can a Neighborhood Council get anything done if board members can’t talk out of fear that any word or gesture could be called out as bullying or other form of inequitable conduct?  

How can Neighborhood Councils advance their mandate to represent the stakeholders to City Hall if they are proscribed on every side by the “Thou shalt nots” promulgated, albeit with the best of intentions, by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and rubber-stamped by the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners? 

The Future

How about doing an about-face and creating an affirmative action code? That: 

--Our meetings exist to honor and uplift everyone. We are committed to creating and sustaining an actively safe space for all bodies, all voices, and all ideas. 

--Respect is a two-way street, earned not taken, with every suggestion meriting consideration. 

--If we don’t understand, ask for clarification. 

--We never assume. 

--If we don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask or use gender neutral language. 

--In return, we accept that few people deliberately speak to offend. 

--If someone makes what you feel is a misstep, assume that it is an accident and gently acknowledge how it makes you feel. 

--Let others act for themselves. We don’t assume. 

--Offer alternatives but don’t dwell on the matter. Keep the focus on moving forward on the issues, not the interaction. 

--Rather than accusing or shaming people, we explore options to help them understand and grow. 

--We accept responsibility for our own actions, and don’t look to others to impose rules we individually think should unilaterally apply. 

--For many, habit is comfortable and any change is scary.

--We understand that some changes may sound immaterial and stilted until seen from another point of view.
By making this space an example for all spaces, we are committing to expanding these principles of respect out into our wider world, with the hope that this will help spread inclusiveness and peace to everyone with whom we interact and beyond. 

--By working together, we become the role models for all humanity.

(Liz Amsden is an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)