Making a difference

Finding ways to engage the public in making change in their communities is not easy. Low voter rates are just one example of how many people take a pass on involving themselves in decisions and activities that have a direct impact on their lives.

There are lots of reasons we don’t get involved. Our lives are busy, and we have our own troubles to deal with, certainly, but it’s more than that. Many people have become disempowered because of cynicism, coupled with distrust and doubt in the possibility of effecting change.

Dave Meslin writes about this in his book “Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up.” Urging the importance of citizen engagement – whether to change a law or bylaw, increase the safety of a street crossing or create a community garden – he says:

“Change is possible, and regular people can have an impact [but] change is much harder than it should be because the system is indeed rigged against ordinary people. Voices are marginalized . . . “

Enter Kingston Speaks Inclusion (KSI).

Lack of trust

In its 2019-2022 strategic plan, the Kingston Police (KP) identified equity, diversity, inclusion, Indigenization and accessibility (EDIIA) as a priority. The police knew that, if their work on EDIIA were to have integrity, the community would need to be consulted.

Kingston Community Health Centres (KCHC) offers a wide range of health services and programs in the community, many of them aimed at the most vulnerable and marginalized. Its work is rooted in a vision to create inclusive, resilient and healthy communities for all and based on its values to be kind, celebrate diversity, collaborate and innovate.

KP approached KCHC to design and run the community consultations that would lead to a report with recommendations about how the police could increase EDIIA throughout its organization. Initially, there was some hesitation by KCHC.  As project lead Roger Romero said, they did not want to be involved in a project that would lead to a report “that collects dust on a shelf.” KP assured KCHC that this would not happen, so the partnership was established, and KCHC built a diverse team that consisted of its own staff and an external EDIIA expert.

The first challenge for KCHC was to convince members of the community to become involved with the consultations, and it was a tough one. KCHC relied on the trust it has spent years building with its 10,000 patients and clients – many of them from equity-deserving communities. KP does not enjoy that same trust because of problematic responses by the police to issues such as homelessness and drug use.

There was a lot of skepticism in the target communities, given this poor police track record. As researcher Giselle Valarezo said:

“[Many asked] why are we going to give feedback on a project about Kingston Police when [they] don’t think there’s going to be any tangible changes.”

Building trust

KCHC asked potential consultation participants what they would need to feel safe and then provided that. This included going to where vulnerable populations were rather than expecting them to come to KCHC, providing information in multiple languages and formats and offering other accommodations as needed. Perhaps most importantly, participants knew that KP members would not attend consultations or see any raw data, including identifying information about those who participated.

As the report states:

“It is believed that one of the most significant challenges in recruiting participants for this project is the existence of a deep mistrust and fear of the police among communities that have historically been (and continue to be) oppressed, discriminated against, marginalized, and agonized by police services locally, nationally and globally. . . The KSI team would like to acknowledge all who had the courage to share their experiences and offer their feedback or recommendations. Their participation is invaluable and has not gone unnoticed.”

The community consultations led to a report with recommendations in a number of key areas: recruitment, training and professional development, internal culture, community interactions and outreach and accountability, transparency and communications.

One recommendation called for the establishment of an EDIIA Accountability Committee, with community membership, which seems to reflect a commitment made by the police at the beginning of the process to create a KP Community Inclusion Council.

Destroying trust

While KCHC completed its report and provided it to KP in July of last year, it proved difficult to come to an agreement with KP about the timing of the planned collaborative release of the report to the public. Out of respect to the partnership with KP, KCHC did not make the report public – despite promises it had made to its communities – for 10 months.

However, when KP’s inaction on planning a joint release of the report continued, despite repeated requests from KCHC, the health centre made the decision to share the report on its own in late April, notifying the police of its intention to do so. The report was made public by KCHC on April 28th, following which the police released it in a press release on May 4th.

On May 10th, KCHC issued a media release which read, in part:

“While the final report and recommendations were presented to Kingston Police in July of 2022, and despite frequent requests from KCHC, as of April 2023, KP had not yet agreed to a collaborative release of the report or to accept KSI’s implementation plan. At this point, ten months after the submission of the completed report and one year after the agreed-upon end date of this project, KCHC felt strongly that they had to honour their commitment to share the report with the agencies and communities who bravely shared their thoughts, experiences and opinions over the course of the consultation process.”

The release further notes, in the words of KSI Project Lead Roger Romero, that the response of the police to the report isn’t adequate:

“Kingston Police should publicly outline the measures they have taken to improve relationships with equity-deserving communities. KP owes the Kingston community a transparent and fulsome outline of the EDI-related activities, including measures of accountability to track their progress.”

KP claims to have included its EDIIA goals in its new strategic plan, but according to researcher Giselle Valarezo:

“After review of the KP Strategic Plan, it’s clear that the KSI report recommendations were only superficially interwoven.”

The lack of action taken by the police, the fact that the KP EDI position is currently vacant and plans for the inclusion council are on hold, along with poor communication, has left the KSI team disheartened and many in the community wondering why they bothered to get involved. The cynicism that Meslin warns against has set in.

As project lead Romero says:

“We leveraged our relationships in the community. We’ve been part of the Kingston community since the late 1980s and we have built years of trust. We went to the encampments, to programs for addictions and mental health. We said, ‘Yes, something will happen.’ But right now we’re going back on that piece, and that’s really difficult for someone like me, as someone who has worked in the community. We went to them and said, ‘Trust us. Change is going to happen.’ Now we’re part of that lie. It is literally a dusty report on a shelf right now.”

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