Candiate Questionnaire Response: Liz De La Torre, Ward 1

Liz De La Torre is running for City Council in Ward 1. Learn more about her at https://neighborsforliz.com

What is your vision for safety and wellness rooted in St. Paul communities? As a city councilmember, what concrete steps would you take to support that vision? And who else would you work with to advance that vision?

I believe that we are only as well-off as the most vulnerable among us. I believe that we are stronger when we lift all of our communities up — that our collective power makes us unstoppable. I believe that the structural inequities that plague our city are solved by understanding and making systemic change from within. This means sharing that knowledge with the community and pledging to transparency in this critical time. We need to know where our elected officials stand on the issues now, rather than waiting for the day of a vote to find out. We need to have our elected officials be in our communities year-round rather than only coming around when it’s an election year. We need a leader that is willing to deep-dive into the nuances of public policy and is not afraid to lean into the discomfort of dialogue because it builds trust and accountability. I’m eager to get to work and hear from my neighbors in Ward 1 about the issues most pressing to them.

What alternatives to policing, arrest, criminal prosecution and incarceration would you work to support? How would you work to reduce the dramatic racial disparities and impacts of these systems?

I believe that we have to come together as a community to address issues that are firmly within our reach. This is a major reason why I decided to pursue a career in law enforcement, to understand first hand how we can effectively change a system from within. Real systemic change is something that I’m familiar with as a Systems Change Advocate at Saint Paul-Ramsey County Public Health’s Sexual Violence Services.

We should work with our police department and city administration to look closely at decriminalizing minor offenses that disproportionately target people of color and the negative impacts that stem from that. We need to examine the data and look at the hard numbers. Change starts with honest and transparent conversation about the complexities of an issue and I pledge to do just that at City Hall.

Many people who are routinely impacted by policing come from our most impoverished and disenfranchised communities, and due to systemic inequities, they are comparatively disconnected from the levers of power. How would you work to elevate the experience and insight of directly impacted community members so they can have the same impact on shaping policy as well-funded advocacy organizations?

This starts with building more transparency and accountability within the standard operating procedures of our public safety entities and city departments. Real community members that have impacted by policing deserve a seat at the decision-making table. We should expect to be given time to analyze and thoughtfully contribute to policy because we are the most directly impacted by them. I pledge to listen to the diverse voices of our communities and have the uncomfortable conversations to bring power back to the people that it belongs to.

In partnership with the community-first safety initiative, and with leadership support from the city council, St. Paul residents have advanced the idea of a community cabinet on safety, wellness and justice. How would you support this cabinet to ensure it has lasting and meaningful input?

Supporting this initiative is critical in advancing community-policing relationships and beginning to build in transparency and accountability into a system and a process that has not been conducive to serving our communities needs and cries for answers. I would push create a multidisciplinary team to make sure that communities members are taken just as seriously as those of other professionals involved; that people are seen as part of the solution, not people in need of a solution. The input and decision-making made by community members should hold just as much weight on such a team. It also allows for a space to be able to relate to one another on a personal level and hold each other accountable to actions taken.

What is your knowledge of or experience with restorative justice and restorative practices? How might St. Paul become a restorative city?

We have to start by admitting the wrongs of the past and be willing to lean into uncomfortable conversations of white supremacy, implicit bias in our policing models, and accept the need for change. Policing as an institution that is structured to shield itself from accountability and change, which is not sustainable and something I seek to change when I am elected. I believe that if we can start by acknowledging the trauma and pain of those victims most affected and betrayed by an institution that is supposed to protect everyone, we can really integrate restorative practices and turn them into real change.

What specific steps would you take to build stability in areas hard-hit by poverty, unemployment, and housing insecurity?

Much of the role of a city councilmember is around building consensus and ensuring that essential city services remain accessible and equitable. We need to treat the shortcomings of other city services with the same urgency as housing and public safety.

We need to look at investing in the physical and economic infrastructure in Ward 1 immediately. We need to maximize the opportunities that we have with the Green Line and the Central Corridor to invest it back into our communities.

I believe that we are only as well-off as the most vulnerable among us. I believe that we are stronger when we lift all of our communities up — that when we fight for the most oppressed in our communities, we all benefit. At the core of our success as a community, is our ability to ensure affordable and accessible housing for all of our residents that meets our diverse population. Since its inception, Saint Paul has been a place that many new Americans have called home, like my own family. The challenges that many immigrant families face are very similar to the ones communities of color also face.

The challenge of affordable housing demands that we come up with creative ways to address the need while still keeping looking at this issue through an intersectional lens. We must look at revisiting our zoning laws and “upzone” where possible and along transit corridors; we must ensure that we have access to emergency shelters and transitional housing; we have to look at expanding access to subsidized housing for families and individuals without children, that often remain chronically homeless for years; we should reconsider the restrictions on accessible dwelling units (also known as “granny flats”) as a way to add to the housing stock and allow our seniors to age in place rather than going into a care facility.

If we can make real change in housing and find people a place to call home, it would be a great start to tackling the other issues that are pressing.

What do you know about the recently dissolved Joint Powers Agreement to share data to flag Ramsey County students as “at-risk”? What lessons do you think officials should take away from the political process that created the Joint Powers Agreement data-sharing plan?

I know that it was a plan with good intentions but ultimately flawed by ignoring the concerns of community members early in the process. This issue further illustrates how that same community can have a significant impact in how it turns out. Elected officials must never wait for an issue to boil over in the public arena to take action.

What specific steps will you take to end the school to prison pipeline of St. Paul youth? What can you do as a city councilmember to create more opportunities for youth to thrive?

I think that quality public education can be a real equalizer and serve our youth. We need to continue to invest in our public schools, affordable housing, and continue to promote the work of agencies like Saint Paul Youth Services. I also believe that we should continue to build public and private initiatives like the Right Track program. Most importantly, we need to include the youth affected into the solution to tackle this issue head on.

What is a person, place, book, experience, or film that has especially influenced your vision of community-first public safety and your dreams about what’s possible for community-first public safety in St. Paul?

The countless experiences, moments, and stories that I’ve shared with the victims and survivors of sexual violence have really shaped my vision of community-first public safety.

When I initially began working as a Systems Change Coordinator and sexual assault advocate two years ago, I jumped right into building my relationships with law enforcement agencies all across Ramsey County. I was convinced that if I could build trust and a working relationship with these officers (who are investigating the crimes) I would be able to produce better outcomes for the individuals we serve. While I have indeed opened up communication between our agency and law enforcement entities significantly, I have learned that lasting, systemic change is not going to happen as quickly as I had hoped. Frankly, when the Star Tribune’s Denied Justice series is when we really started to see a real willingness from our police departments to change. The public outcry accelerated the changes that we had in the pipeline.

I envision public safety to be swift to change, without the need for media intervention. Where police officers are interacting with all people, in the same trauma-informed manner that they must interact with victims of sexual violence. We must acknowledge that if we have much healing to do to achieve this vision.

How should the city of St. Paul welcome and support people returning to neighborhoods from jail or prison, or living on probation? What steps would you take to make housing more accessible to people with criminal convictions?

We need to do a better job of fully integrating people into our communities before they are released from a correctional facility. For too long, we have allowed people with criminal convictions to be treated as second-class citizens by denying them the right to vote upon release, the right to discriminated against in housing, and the right to a livable wage. We need to eliminate any law or ordinance that allows landlords and employers to discriminate based on a felony conviction. We need to restore the right to vote to felons immediately upon release, and we need to educate ourselves as community members as well.

What informs your decision-making process when it comes to community issues? Can you share a story about a specific time when you had to decide where you stood on a difficult community issue, or when you had to decide what kind of action you should take on an issue? How did you arrive at the decision you did?

Listening to those people most affected by an issue is an approach that I have always tried to include in my decision-making. One recent issue that comes to mind is the City Budget that recently passed that included funding for back-filling 9 officer positions. While I understand why many in the community were not happy with that decision, I was in full support of it because of what I have learned from my own experiences in helping victims and survivors of sexual violence navigate reporting to police. Back-filling those 9 positions meant that rape victims are getting their cases investigated in light of the egregious caseload that sex crimes investigators often face; it meant engaging victims on their terms in their own investigations and taking the lead from the victims of these crimes. When I started this position, there were 5 investigators working these cases and now we are up to 9. These positions are also being added to the community engagement unit in an attempt to continue the work of building trust with the public. Additionally, we are seeing an uptick in gun violence and calls to 9–1–1.

What does co-governance look like to you? How have you implemented that vision of co-governance in your own life and work? How would you work to scale up that vision in city government?

I believe strongly that the best decisions are made through discussion and collaboration. Throughout my career, I’ve been intentional about working in diverse teams to create real, meaningful change. To me, co-governance is centered in the principle that we work better together. No one should hold power; rather, elected officials should create space to empower and uplift the voices of their constituents.

The other critical component of co-governance is accountability. I believe all elected officials, especially incumbents, should be judged on two primary points: their record, including promises kept and results delivered; and, on whether they shared power broadly, or hoarded it. I am eager to be held accountable to my commitments — in action, and in values — as Ward 1’s Councilmember.