Candidate Questionnaire Response: Mitra Jalali Nelson, Ward 4

Mitra Jalali Nelson is running for re-election to City Council in Ward 4. Learn more about her at https://www.mitranelson.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?

We are the keepers of our own community, and the surest way to fund public safety is to fund people’s futures. Everyone deserves to be safe in our city, no matter who they are. We must vocally challenge city and departmental culture so reforms and police accountability measures are implemented in practice — not just on paper. We also need to reframe safety from a community vantage point, and work with people who are disproportionately at risk of experiencing violence or unjust law enforcement to create policies that protect and uphold the rights of all.

As someone who has both fought people’s deportations and walked alongside people of color whose lives were forever interrupted or lost to police violence, this work is deeply personal to me and necessary for the very future of our city. The institution of policing is squarely rooted in our nation’s history of chattel slavery, and there is no reimagining of public safety that can take place without acknowledging that this is where we have been. Today, though, we can — and must — urgently seek out the change that we need now.

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?

There are numerous examples of programs we know can make a difference and that deserve support in Saint Paul. We need to stop “starting with police” in every public safety situation and start investing upstream in prevention, diversion and alternatives to police in our city. Some of my ideas for safety beyond policing and criminalization include:

  • Funding neighborhood cohorts of people trained in de-escalation and alternatives to calling the police. This could strengthen local networks, reduce calls in to the system, reduce the risk of police misconduct and shift a general culture of often resorting to 911 first
  • Scaling up proven pilots like the library social worker program, which is thankfully getting continued funding this year, and should continue to grow our community capacity to address trauma and redirect people toward resources
  • Funding more trained, non-officer civilian positions to support our growing mental health needs as a community
  • Advocating for an audit and comprehensive report on the mental health responders unit of SPPD, and pushing for exploration of an additional pilot or adjustment that dispatches trained mental health professionals in crisis situations without armed officers in qualifying situations
  • Funding unarmed community patrol positions to be used instead of sworn officers as a community-first security presence at large-scale city events like our neighborhood festivals
  • Studying the potential of municipal ID in Saint Paul with affected communities so that people who are undocumented are not needlessly penalized for not having government ID
  • Working with the City Attorney’s office and relevant other partners in the criminal justice system to reform practices, penalties and sentencing for treatment of low-level city or other offenses
  • Continuing to promote successful community-based efforts like Ramsey County Warrant Forgiveness Day
  • Continuing to strongly advocate for the general broad policy approach of investments in public health, wellness, economic stability and other forms of security and safety beyond police, including pursuing divestment and budget cuts from SPPD in areas that have cost our city due to mishandling (such as the K-9 unit)

I also believe that even more ideas exist shared by the residents of Saint Paul and am eager to explore, help uplift and support these efforts as a Councilmember.

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?

During our public hearings on the budget, minimum wage, and countless other topics, it’s clear that the way we build public policy tends to undervalue the lived experiences of many of our residents. During my first year in office, I’ve been trying to break down that paradigm. My office has shown a willingness to attack community engagement with energy and passion because we know that the only way you shape a new future for our city is by talking to the people who will help create that future. I’m committed to talking with people face to face, hearing their stories, and bringing those experiences directly into the policy making process. I’m committed to pushing for more seats at the table for more community members experiencing these issues. I’m also committed to sharing their stories with permission and in mutual collaboration from my seat. Councilmembers have a platform to signal-boost as well as the power to make more room. In my first year in office I have worked hard to do both and will continue to do so however I can.

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?

During the 2018 budget process, I vocally pushed for the creation of this cabinet. I heavily support this idea, especially because it originated in our community and has been developing for months thanks to organic community leadership. This year, as the chair of our council’s newly formed public safety workgroup, I am eager to work with Root and Restore as well as partners like Mayor Carter and the rest of the Council to figure out how to advance this idea and move it forward. I will continue being a vocal advocate on the Council for this initiative, including advocating for institutionalizing it however appropriate and working to ensure it can have lasting presence to source policy and hold ongoing relationships.

I fundamentally believe that if we don’t organize our community around developing a policy vision for community-first public safety, the status quo will continue and other ideas will win instead. I am committed to championing this cabinet and its goals as a key vehicle for that organizing effort.

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

Restorative justice is the effort to promote both healing for victims of violence and community accountability and rehabilitation for offending parties. Restorative justice practices are often used in communities and groups seeking both true healing for victims of violence as well as alternatives to formal criminal justice system penalties for those committing violence. RJ processes often center on direct, mediated reconciliation between victim and offender in addition to separate healing and accountability. Domestic Abuse Project is one community organization I have worked with and learned from committed to practicing with a restorative justice lens. My roots in the classroom have also familiarized me with what restorative justice classrooms can look like when addressing situations between students who have harmed each other, or shifting how teachers approach classroom discipline.

For Saint Paul to become a restorative justice city, we have to first come to a shared public definition of what RJ is and isn’t. I have articulated my understanding of this concept here, and I know that other residents and decision-makers may overlap or diverge from it (and I welcome disagreements to sharpen a truer and better statement on what RJ is). I view the community cabinet on public safety as an ideal place to shape consensus on policy topics and concepts like this one. We need working definitions of these concepts to work together towards realizing them.

More broadly, I believe my policy platform of building community wealth, community-first public safety, attainable and affordable housing and action on climate furthers the vision of a restorative justice city by seeking to repair historical harms and invest heavily in our city’s future. My vision for community-first public safety centers on alternatives to policing and investments in community safety beyond police. In my personal experience researching this topic, I’ve also looked to groups like Local Progress (which shares best practices for municipal progressive policy reforms in cities around the country) and Institute for the Future (which studied and made recommendations for restorative justice at the city level). I would be proud to work with Root and Restore toward shaping this vision further for our city.

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

Our city’s prosperity is not only possible, but dependent upon building the wealth of all residents, no matter their starting point. In addition to passing policies that put more money in people’s pockets, we need to proactively support equitable community-informed development on a wide range of projects to make sure our community benefits from projects that developers pursue here. Our neighborhood businesses are also at the heart of our local economy, and we should do everything we can to help them succeed and make our city the unique and thriving place it is.

I want to continue building community wealth by:

  • Working hand-in-hand with partners to develop a Midway community benefits fund for equitable development and stadium-related transition for small businesses and residents — Leveraging leadership roles like board membership of the Port Authority to shape community vision for industrial and other zones of opportunity, and build for our city’s future housing, commercial and new industrial needs — Continuing to engage with businesses on University, Selby, Como, Marshall, Snelling and other business corridors throughout Ward 4 to streamline city processes and highlight the local businesses that make Saint Paul unique

I want to take on our housing crisis by:

  • Shaping implementation of the $10M Affordable Housing Trust Fund so that we can leverage up to $74M in additional funds to promote affordable homeownership, subsidize new affordable housing and more to combat displacement and housing instability — Pushing for the study of inclusionary zoning and tools like density bonuses that spur the creation of affordable units, and seek other opportunities for new affordable and mixed-income housing on sites throughout our city — Continuing to ignite the conversation on addressing regional homelessness and bringing all partners to the table

Above all, we need to start with community members hardest-hit by economic injustice and work with them to shape our policy vision. These are my ideas and commitments, and I am looking forward to working more closely with Root and Restore and community partners to learn theirs.

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?

The key lesson to be learned is that any effort undertaken to improve the lives of students needs to be done in close partnership with those students and their families. Many well-intentioned proposals can replicate oppressive realities or risk further perpetuating inequity. From working with students firsthand for three years as a teacher, I do know that students who are struggling are often experiencing challenges in multiple areas of life and across systems. We still need to be cautious about and attentive to the risks of predictive data modeling and how information is shared across those systems. I’m supportive of us stepping away from the Joint Powers Agreement to re-evaluate alternatives that make sense and are supported with intensive community engagement.

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

In a city like Saint Paul, where over 150 languages are spoken in SPPS, we need to employ a number of strategies to give every student the chance to succeed and to uplift and celebrate their cultural backgrounds. We need more teachers of color and educators in general who directly understand our students’ experiences and are supported toward the unique burdens educators of color carry. We also need to support the trainings and professional development that groups like Saint Paul Federation of Educators are pursuing to address educator racial bias and foster culturally responsive education on an ongoing basis. I will advocate for funding through the referendum and other means that could potentially help resource this very important work.

We should not support charter or public schools that maintain zero-tolerance or harsh disciplinary policies that treat our students unequally and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. I will personally advocate for safe and affirming schools for all, and do all I can to support SPPS in this work. So many youth are also struggling outside of school, and we need to fund after school programs & youth training programs to help kids live fulfilling lives when not in school.

My career began in 2008 as a social studies teacher in an alternative high school, where 90% of my students were ensnared in the juvenile justice system through a lack of investment in their lives and a lack of access to essential programs for their own development. Too many students are criminalized for survival behaviors, do not receive access to urgent help for the trauma that they sometimes carry and are then punished and pushed out of school for reaching their own human limits. Our students deserve love, support and the fullest of our commitment to helping them reach their full potential. We need to act urgently to fund the schools our students deserve, and to create a citywide culture of support and belief in all youth regardless of circumstance.

As a City Councilmember, I have fought for more resources for SPPS through two successful referendum campaigns, strongly supported programs like Right Track and St. Paul Youth Services, voted for significant increases in funding to rec centers and libraries, and in general strive to use my platform to advocate for investing in our youth in other avenues. I will continue to partner with community allies to make sure we are doing all we can for our youth in Saint Paul.

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?

Becoming a more welcoming place for our returning residents will take multiple strategies. In terms of housing, I believe it’s our city responsibility to fully support formerly incarcerated people in returning to life, health and community through city landlord education and other efforts that remove common barriers to housing and employment. We should pursue a comprehensive tenant rights ordinance for Saint Paul that includes a “ban the box” on housing, protections against discrimination for having a Section 8 voucher or being previously homeless, a right of first refusal, just cause eviction rights and other layers of protections that help folks better access housing in our community, regardless of background or circumstance. We should also develop a community directory of trusted landlords educated on and willing to rent to returning residents, and improve existing city processes like DSI’s landlord trainings to better address these issues. These are just some of my ideas, and I am eager to hear more and learn how we can support returning residents in Saint Paul as full members of our community.

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?

My passion and sense of urgency for community-first public safety comes from the experience that has formed the foundation of my leadership, which is teaching in an alternative high school in New Orleans just three years after Hurricane Katrina. My students experienced educational inequities, gun violence, housing instability, food insecurity, environmental trauma and systemic racism in numerous other forms. I was transformed by the monumental challenges that I saw my students facing firsthand, and came away from that motivated to pursue racial, social and economic justice for a lifetime.

In my recent professional life, I was the public safety and immigration aide for then-Congressman Keith Ellison. I strategized with community on how to push back on ICE’s heinous immigration enforcement regime, supported constituents and families going through active deportation cases, worked with teams of airport attorneys combating the Muslim/refugee ban and did everything else within our office’s power to show up for immigrant/refugee communities in the time of Trump. I also worked to support and uphold the rights, dignity and recovery for constituents whose relatives were killed by police violence. These experiences have also transformed me and deepened my commitment to doing everything possible to end systematic state violence against people of color and indigenous people. I am proud and grateful to get to bring these experiences to my work as a Councilmember to better push a conversation about what we as a city can do.

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?

In all decision-making, I strive to balance my values, my policy priorities, the facts of a situation and community input. In every situation, I strive to use two of the biggest tools at my disposal as an elected official — my voice and my vote — to do the most good for the most people. Early on in my first year in office, I faced pressure to adopt a strongly supported neighborhood zoning proposal that significantly downzoned stretches of a major transit corridor and made apartment buildings illegal in numerous places. As someone who campaigned openly and vocally on renter voice, growing our density, addressing our growing housing needs as a city and maximizing transit for future development, I disagreed with and could not support the proposal at hand. I worked to incorporate the scale of the suggested changes while bringing amendments that reflected additional community input outside of the planning process and our city’s broader goals and needs. The final amended plan passed the City Council 6–1. I have sought to make similarly disciplined decisions during my first year in office, using my values as a guide to make equitable decisions as much as possible in every situation. I hope to keep working closely with Root and Restore to advance our vision for a safer Saint Paul together.

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?

In addition to my platform and policy priorities, I’m also working to do something much bigger and deeper on our City Council — and that’s to change the way our city engages with its residents. Saint Paul does better when we have better, more inclusive engagement and more representative neighborhood processes.

Co-governance is the ongoing process of relationship, accountability and advocacy with elected officials and community for our shared goals. It means sourcing policy ideas directly from community and lived experiences, and working together to translate that into action and policy gains. I’ve worked to bring co-governing into my first year in office so far by working hand in hand with impacted community members and advocates for the minimum wage, sustainable to-go packaging, with community-first public safety advocates during the budget process and with housing community partners in our efforts to achieve fair housing. In general, I work hard to be just one phone call away from everyday residents and activists/advocates working to promote our shared policy goals. We are doing this work together.

In addition to my existing efforts, my ideas for scaling up inclusive city processes that support co-governance and community empowerment can be found here, and they include:

  • Convening a City Government & Civics 101 forum in 2019 to demystify who “the city” is, what every sub-part of city government does, how you can use your voice and take advantage of community processes like district council
  • “Bring City Hall to you”: continuing as a Ward 4 office to hold more neighborhood meetings on more topics around the Ward, including the ones you suggest
  • District council reform: supporting an increase of funding for district councils tied to requirements and supports for achieving more representation so that our neighborhood planning processes involve all in the neighborhood
  • Promoting citywide use of the equitable development scorecard in planning at the district council level as one tool for more community-informed development
  • Serving as the official co-chair of the Ramsey County 2020 Census collection effort, which is responsible for the full census count of everyone in Ramsey County so that billions of dollars in federal investment can continue to reach our communities and local policies that use census data can be shaped for all
  • Have brought back regular Ward 4 office hours hosted around the Ward bi-monthly or more frequently, alongside a full team offering constituent services and support at the city regularly

The heart of co-governing is ultimately relationships. I’m excited to keep building a relationship with Root and Restore Coalition so that we can keep cultivating that relationship and working together.

I ran for City Council to bring everybody to the table, including and especially people who have been traditionally left out of government. I’m running for a full term so I can continue working to open our city up for all.