Candidate Questionnaire Response: Terri Thao, Ward 6
Terri Thao is running for City Council in Ward 6. Learn more about her at https://www.territhao.org
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?
Public safety and wellness means that all residents have access to safe spaces, good jobs, quality education, public transportation, affordable housing, healthy businesses and business districts, and trusting relationships with our law enforcement community. We also have increased positive physical, mental and emotional health outcomes. I will further advance this vision by collaborating with the city, police department, county, and school district to develop comprehensive strategies that will improve the overall safety and wellness of our community. I will also continue to invest in school programs and infrastructure that include restorative justice and strengths-based programs. It is with great pride that I have advocated for a grant for restorative practices at my children’s school which we received and are implementing this school year.
In addition, I will work hard to increase economic development and inclusion in our community. I believe when you give people good jobs and dignified work, it means they can provide for their families, feel a sense of pride and are less likely to engage in criminal activity. I will also invest in job-training programs for youth because it gives them on- the-job experience, alternatives to participating in unsafe activities and provides disposable income that is recirculated in the local economy. I will also support the thriving small businesses along our commercial corridors, this means our needs are met and we are circulating our money locally.
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?
Community restorative justice is an effective approach that we must ensure is included in our school and criminal justice systems. Hennepin County has developed a new Restorative Court approach which has been quite effective to help people accused of crime to stay out of the justice system. I am committed to adopting and implementing a similar program in our city. I will also support various diversion programs that offer alternatives for low level offenses. We must also create pathways for people to move out of poverty and away from crime in order to build healthy communities. I will work with nonprofits and other youth programs to provide after- school and job training programs and family services in order keep children and families together in our community. I am dedicated to making sure our city analyzes and reports on the harmful impacts of policies and use of force punishment that disproportionally impacts communities of color.
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?
Quite simply I would engage those impacted by systemic inequities. This means I would meet them where they are at in community — whether this is at local businesses, through different networks, via social media or in public spaces. I am also committed to educating everyone on policy formation so that we have a shared analysis of the problem. In my entire professional career from training leaders of color for public boards to funding ethnic based community of color economic development organizations, I have been dedicated to doing this work of deep engagement and build shared understanding to create solutions to systemic problems.
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?
First I would ensure that the composition of the cabinet reflects the community and includes those who have lived experience in making communities safe and well. Then I would make sure that the cabinet does not provide advice but has some actual authority to make change or that their recommendations are adopted easily. Lastly I would ask that the cabinet come back with semiannual or annual reports to the city council on outcomes to ensure that we are holding ourselves accountable as a city and as a community. Another option would be to hold a co- learning session or retreat with the council and this community cabinet on these outcomes to discuss progress to date and what other policies may need to change.
What is your knowledge of or experience with restorative justice and restorative practices? How might St. Paul become a restorative city?
My largest knowledge of restorative justice comes from the work that is happening in the public schools, namely my children’s’ school where they are using circle processes to engage in conversations and ensure all voices are being heard. I am aware of that the history of the circle practice comes from American Indian communities. I am interested in the concept of transformative justice where we create care groups and support networks in order to address harm in our communities for all of the parties affected and NOT create more harm or violence as a result. St. Paul could be a restorative city when we first acknowledge the racism and other bias on individual, interpersonal and systemic levels and begin to speak to how we heal each other as part of this process.
What specific steps would you take to build stability in areas hard-hit by poverty, unemployment, and housing insecurity?
To truly address poverty and in particular racially concentrated areas of poverty (of which there are several in Ward 6) we need first make large public investments so I would advocate for more funding to support the East Side.
To address housing insecurity I would work on the following strategies:
- Expand housing density and affordable housing through incentive programs and multi- family developments.
- Identify and locate vacant homes and lots for homeownership opportunities throughout the city.
- Promote use of city and other resources to help residents update their homes. I would also ensure a broad range of public policies and local investments that supports housing opportunities for all residents, including accessory dwelling units, community land trust and cooperative housing models.
- Protect and improve the lives of low-income renters and households on fixed incomes — those vulnerable to displacement through allocating money towards housing resources such as rental and legal assistance and foreclosure prevention and borrower education. Key to this will also be identifying multi-family developments where increased rents could easily displace current renters.
In regards to unemployment, there are many strategies I would propose. First I would ensure city funding on projects have local hire goals. The city itself is an employer and we should be tracking how well we do on local hires. I also support entrepreneurship as a strategy to address unemployment and look for ways to support and streamline processes for small local businesses and people of color owned-businesses development with a focus on different ownership options such as worker-owned cooperatives.
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?
My knowledge of the recently dissolved Joint Powers Agreement was that it was an agreement amongst the county, school district and city to share information that would have shared data about “at-risk” youth. Community groups were concerned that this targeting of data would worsen outcomes for youth, especially youth of color.
I think the lesson to be learned here is that while all of the stakeholders had the same goal of working to prevent youth from entering the criminal justice system, there continues to be a distrust of how data has been used in communities of color. A lesson for the next iteration of this joint relationship should include having all affected groups identify specific goals for this work and sharing lessons learned from targeted data practices in the past and the bias in the process of gathering data.
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?
First we need to engage youth where they are at and ask them about what opportunities they want to see in their communities. For example, they may want more opportunities around the arts or entrepreneurship and then we need to bring in partners who can help them bring their ideas to fruition. We also need to promote current city initiatives of Right Track and the Sprockets after school network as options for youth. I will continue to leverage our city resources such as our parks, libraries and recreation centers as gathering spaces for our youth and also work with neighbors and police to message that we need these safe spaces in community.
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?
I think the city should partner with the authorities returning these people to the city to make sure we have updated and complete resource guide and phone numbers in case they have questions. It can be daunting to come back to community after extended periods of incarceration and upon release or even on probation we need to continue to monitor and coordinate efforts so that they feel that they are being supported and set up for success.
To make housing more accessible to people with criminal convictions I would take lessons learned from a recent state pilot that incentivized landlords to rent to this population and budget money to make this happen. I would also work with housing partners on their lists of criminal conviction friendly landlords and ensure that this is updated and available to these returnees.
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 experience growing up in St. Paul in the Frogtown neighborhood when the crime rate was high and we did not generally feel safe greatly shaped my experience of what community-first public safety could like. My parents did not want us to go outside but we had no choice but to walk to the school bus stop in the morning and take the city bus to get to work or the library. And due to our financial circumstance, we could not move either. I saw that over policing was not an answer either because that ended up making all residents not feel safe, especially residents of color.
Yet at the same time I saw people in my neighborhood say enough was enough and invested in young people, worked in partnership with our neighbors, the city and police to clean up our neighborhoods and we invested funding to fix up homes so that people could take pride in the homes and neighborhoods where they lived. So this dream is possible because I did see it happen and I am most excited to co-create these solutions for the people of Ward 6.
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?
I get information about community issues from a number of different resources including: talking with people in my network who are aware and/or knowledgeable about an issue; doing research an issue and just asking for help to learn more about an issue. In 2017 on the Planning Commission, we were reviewing rules for a city ordinance to allow short term rentals (such as Airbnb) in the city. I was not opposed to people renting out a room or unit to earn extra income but I had heard from a Los Angeles based community organization that many of these short term rentals ended up reducing the number of regular low to moderate income long term rentals in the city. I was concerned about this issue given the housing shortage for low-income communities and continued to raise it at multiple meetings and with city planning staff until we looked at the data around where these current rentals are located. The final ordinance passed with language to address this concern and with a request to have this information submitted to the city by short term rental companies to be reviewed on an annual basis.
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?
To me co-governance is not just reviewing policies together but actually having a shared understanding of the problem, co-creating solutions together and reconvening to evaluate the progress on these solutions. Again I have done this in many circumstances, from serving on the boards of non-profits where board and management have clear roles but we are always thinking of how we interact with community and allow community to inform and co-own the process and outcomes.
I would scale up this vision in city government by starting with a few key departments or boards or commissions where parts of this is already taking place and share lessons learned with other departments so that they can believe that this co-governance is possible. I would conduct surveys with the public to gauge satisfaction with how well we are co-governing.