End of Year Borough Council Reflection, 2020-21
By Espoir DelMain ‘21
Last fall, I attended my first virtual Borough Council meeting, but at this point it feels like even longer. As I reflect on the year, I am reminded of all I learned. I expanded upon what I already knew as well as being exposed to a wealth of new information. This was my first year working in local government, and I realized that because of the corruption and injustice that has come to light in the last year during COVID, it is not always the systems that are at fault but how they are being used and who oversees them. While it is easy to associate the structures of government with their actions, the networks and frameworks allow for there to be order and process through which change can be made. An institution that provides order is essential for any transformation. This year helped me to see the value in these structures and systems that allow us to make change and have our voices be heard.
Throughout my years at Dickinson, there has been a significant amount of conversation around the town-gown divide. As the Borough Council Ambassador this past year, I thought that I could find and cultivate a new form of reciprocity. Through classes in the SINE program, I have had the opportunity to learn about case studies where local government has successfully collaborated with a variety of sectors. These case studies, however, were intentionally curated into our curriculum and did not match up directly with the situation in Carlisle, so at times I felt destined to fail in addressing the divide.
I have come to realize that my voice, even as a student, can have value. Everyone’s voice can make a difference if they decide to harness its power. It is important to be intentional about how and what we use our voices for. There are significant amounts of long overdue work that need to be accomplished when it comes to listening to others. As a white person, I know that people who look like me ought to pass the mic and honor BIPOC leaders and those who have been most negatively affected by white supremacy culture and racial capitalism. I also know I have to challenge those that hold resources and power and encourage them to pass this power to those on the frontlines as well.
In classes, we discuss various problems, but we rarely create solutions. It is even less likely that we can test the solutions in the real world. I had the opportunity to do both this year in Borough Council. I learned that being labelled as something in particular does not mean that it is permanent, but it does mean that there is the possibility of affecting people negatively because of the stereotypical label. Awareness of how you are perceived is half of the battle and understanding and honoring that is hard work. Personally, because I carried the student label in this community and in my position, I learned that while I may not have the experience of making changes in our society, I have the capacity to work towards and support more transformation. The communities of Dickinson and Carlisle will continue to coexist and be interdependent for far longer than I inhabit and interact in this space, and I cannot predict the implications of my actions on these communities.
Through my work with the Borough, I am grateful to have received advice from role models in the field of community and campus organizing. I have been reacquainted with the knowledge that there are many forces that prevent one's voice from being heard. While bias and bigotry prevent people from hearing and listening to others that have experiences different from their own, we can and must challenge these exclusionary perspectives. This past year, I was able to witness firsthand Carlisle’s decision to challenge exclusionary perspectives through the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was monumental legislation that became a reality because of the many years that racism has policed and separated communities in Carlisle. A public policy like this one is a huge first step to combatting racism within Carlisle’s neighborhoods and local government.
In March, based on this conversation, I proposed the use of the land acknowledgement in the Borough of Carlisle. A land acknowledgement is the practice of naming the stolen and unceded territory where events, institutions and gatherings occur. It helps set the stage or frame the spaces we occupy and exist in, in relation to histories of oppression. The land acknowledgement also helps us become more invested in creating liberated futures. It was impossible to predict the pushback that I would receive in the land acknowledgement initiative and in retrospect, I could have been more proactive in addressing it. I wrongly assumed that the process would be generally seamless because Dickinson College and other community organizing spaces have been quick to create a habit of this practice. I learned that the process of change in local government can be quite slow. Both the Mayor and Deputy Mayor showed me the procedures that are involved in policy making, and I realized that what I thought was long term was incomparable to the actual length of time it takes in local government to make policy changes. I essentially began the conversation pertaining to land acknowledgement and racial equity legislation, but I will not see it completed, nor can any single person carry the weight of such large legislation.
In retrospect, since I did not work on building the conversation for this topic among community members, I should have handled that interdependence with more care than I did. I have found that in local government, conversations that arise are often based on previous communication and that it is important to think about how current interactions will also inform the future. That being said, my biggest takeaway is to go slow. Initiatives in local government require continuous work over long periods of time, and seeing the results takes longer. As an online college student last year, I was accustomed to fast-past semester courses and zoom meetings all day. These meetings and courses demanded immediate follow up emails and assignments, but I had to readjust my methodology when working with local government. I look forward to better understanding timelines and scale of projects and campaigns as I apply the knowledge I gathered this year in continuing the work and practice of organizing to create positive, lasting, change.
Something essential, and often the most necessary is having resources and tools that people can access to organize for this change. As an artist and an organizer, I also think a lot about how artists are storytellers in our communities and are chronically under-supported. This motivated me to explore how other communities make resources available and share access to spaces so that the work of artists can be exposed to a larger audience. Subsequently, I facilitated a conversation with members of the local arts sector and Dickinson faculty and staff to explore the idea of a Public Arts Commission, and we began framing a proposal for a Carlisle Borough Arts Fund. The goal of this fund would be to sustain individual artists and arts organizations engaged in public and civic projects in the community of Carlisle. Through this process, I was able to use my organizing muscles by facilitating, scheduling and organizing meetings with people engaged in the arts across the community. At the same time, I have been investigating arts activism through an independent study titled Performing Citizenship: Theatre, Dance, and Civic Engagement with Professor Erin Crawley-Woods and my friend, Brendan Carr. While not specifically planned, my independent study and my work with the Borough significantly informed each other. I have seen the challenges of involving different stakeholders in a multisector effort, and I look forward to seeing these projects continue even after my term as Borough Ambassador has ended.
I want to thank Borough Manager Susan Armstrong for her support in these endeavors. I am grateful for all I have learned from leaders inside and outside of the Borough Council who have shared with me their knowledge of cultivating and promoting transformation in Carlisle. I look forward to continuing to see how the Borough of Carlisle continues its commitment to justice and equity.