By ERIC A. HOWALD and CASEY CHAFFIN
Of the Keizertimes
In January 2017, a user of the social network Nextdoor.com posted a photo of a swastika drawn in the snow at their home. It was the second time in two years it happened at the residence in the Gubser neighborhood.
The post was met with mixed reactions, some downplayed the severity of the act while others encouraged the resident to report it to the police. Keizer resident Cyndi Swaney took one of the most vocal stances against it.
“It was surprising at how nonchalant people were in talking about the swastika compared to gang tagging going on a few miles away,” said Swaney in a recent interview. She is a teacher in the Salem-Keizer School District.
A few months later, Swaney and a small group of friends attended a string of city council meetings asking for the city council to consider adopting an inclusivity resolution – a statement declaring the city a safe and inclusive space for everyone regardless or race, creed, national origin, gender identity and sexual identity. In the months before the ask, the Salem-Keizer teachers union, the Salem-Keizer School District, and the City of Salem had all adopted similar resolutions.
The request barely got out of mouths of the group before the language of the resolution was deemed “inflammatory” by City Councilor Amy Ryan. In later discussions, the petitioners were accused of creating cover for undocumented immigrants and attempting to make Keizer a sanctuary city.
Nevertheless, Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark said the city would look into “putting Keizer wheels” on such a resolution, and suggested the possibility of establishing a task force. The idea was discussed once more in a work session in July 2017, but the council hasn’t resurrected the conversation since. While other issues have come and gone in that time, the council has canceled seven of its last nine work sessions when it might have taken another look into the inclusivity issue.
“I’m really surprised at the pushback,” Swaney said. “I never would have thought it would take this long. I believed them when they said they would look into forming a committee and have more work sessions to discuss it.”
Swaney realizes that an inclusivity resolution would not put an end to acts rising out of bias and hatred, but such statements are also more than words.
Randy Blazak has been studying hate groups and ways to counteract their messages for the past three decades and said inclusivity resolutions are one way to do it.
“Institutional changes are important in moving the ball forward toward equity, but they are also important to the people served by that institution. We know that someone can be marginalized by a neighbor calling them names, but we can also be marginalized by the institutions that are supposed to serve us, whether it’s a government, bank, or the airline that you fly,” Blazak said. “If you are a person that is a target of that marginalization, any movement toward equity can be incredibly helpful and it means those people can work at their full potential. There was a study that came out last year that found when people can be their true selves, they will work four times as hard and be more involved in the institutions. These [inclusivity] statements ultimately help all of us in that way.”
Earlier this year, a Hispanic Keizer resident was assaulted by another man who lived in his neighborhood. While the crime appeared to rise out of racial bias, the case is still working its way through the justice system. If the victim lived in Salem – which has far-reaching inclusivity language in its adopted statues and ordinances and a volunteer Human Rights Commission to assist victims – he might have had some reassurance that his assailant didn’t represent the community as a whole.
Danielle Meyer, who chairs the Salem Human Rights Commission, said even though it can only provide reassurances in many cases, the words still matter.
“Sometimes all we can do is be there to listen and say we’re sorry that happened, but people really appreciate hearing that. It means a lot to them,” Meyer said.
As it stands, the only statements regarding inclusivity and diversity in Keizer’s city charter are ones marginalizing people with non-mainstream sexual and gender identities. City residents approved the changes to the city charter – the founding document of the city -– with 55 percent of the vote in 1993. (See chart on Page A1 for the differences in language.)
City Councilor Roland Herrera, the sole Latino voice on the Keizer city council, said some recent efforts like Keizer Police Chief John Teague visiting the city’s predominantly Latino church improve relations between Latino residents and Keizer public safety officials, but there is always room to grow within that relationship and other spaces.
In recent years, he’s been employed as a mentor at Kennedy Elementary School and a parent recently reported that, when she was asking about school enrollment on Facebook, someone commented telling her to “go back to Mexico.”
“She was in shock. She had never heard anything like that and didn’t know how to respond. I tell people about incidents like that and they will say that it can’t happen in Keizer, but it does, sometimes,” Herrera said in an interview last week. “I want people to be aware that it does exist for some people.”
He added that it’s incumbent on everyone to “get out of their comfort zones because that’s how you grow.”
Herrera bristled at the idea of an inclusivity resolution being tagged as a maneuver to provide cover for undocumented residents.
“We just want people to be open-minded. If someone is wearing clothing that’s a little bit different, be open-minded and welcoming. I don’t think an [inclusivity resolution] answers everything, but it would be helpful,” Herrera said.
Swaney said support among the group that requested consideration of the inclusivity resolution has not diminished, but actions at the federal and state level (the ending of DACA and the emergence of an Oregon ballot measure to repeal a statewide sanctuary state law) have shifted priorities up the chain of governance. She, for one, is not giving up the cause precisely because she’s seen how lives and minds can be changed by taking a stance on inclusivity issues.
When Swaney taught at Claggett Creek Middle School, she handled an incident when members of the school’s leadership team were found drawing a swastika on a binder during a school project.
“It was a white privilege thing and they didn’t understand. Some people wanted them off the leadership team and I advocated to teach them about what the symbol was and what it represents. In the end, they were put on probation I think we were able to do some positive education.”
(Keizertimes intern Random Pendragon contributed to reporting of this story.)