Mark Santow (D) Un-Debate Q&A

Main Questions (200 word maximum answers)

1) What specifically would you do to improve the state of our public schools in Ward 3?

Most of what is needed to improve King and Bishop is actually needed in all Providence public schools.  We need to provide every child with enriching pre-kindergarten opportunities. We need to support English Language Learners.  We need to give students the social-emotional support they need and deserve. We need to ensure public school buildings are safe, healthy places conducive to teaching and learning. We need to ensure that every child gets free transportation to school, regardless of how far (or close) they live.  All students need access to the arts, and to culturally relevant curricula.  I have been working hard on these issues for several years now, on the School Board, and through the Fix Our Schools Now coalition, and I will continue to do so on the Council.  Within the ward, I will focus on the physical condition of our schools (including the playground at King), on making sure that parents and educators feel heard and supported, and on celebrating the great work that goes on at Bishop and King.  Too often the focus is exclusively on what we don’t have, and not enough on strengths and what is working well.  I plan to attend PTO meetings, and to be a constant presence in both buildings.

2) How would you address the issue of violence, before it happens in our ward, and how would you respond to it after it does happen?

It is vital to surround our young people with adults and institutions that care about their wellbeing.  This includes public schools that are engaging, effective, healthy, and relevant, with discipline policies that don’t criminalize children.  It includes after school programs that are accessible and rewarding, with enough spots for every child.  The mayor and the School Board have recently expanded summer learning opportunities; our next councilor needs to make sure those programs are fully-funded, brought to scale, and widely available to children in our neighborhood.  If elected I will work hard to bring more resources to the institutions providing youth programming in Ward 3 too.  With regard to law enforcement, we need the police sub-station on Camp to be reopened, and to be purposeful about helping the officers stationed there to get to know the community, and build relationships.  Efforts to get guns off the streets would also be valuable.  Finally, the creation of some sort of institutionalized emergency task force that can quickly respond to violence with help (ranging from resources and legal help, to mental health services and moral witness) is very important, and our new councilor should be a key part of it.

3) Ward 3 is diverse, and sections of the ward are divided along race and class lines. How do you hope to keep the cross-Ward community conversation going? Do you support efforts to encourage residents to spend time in other parts of the ward, crossing the invisible borders that separate the various communities on the East Side?

I certainly think it is valuable for individuals to reach out to one another across boundaries of race, class, religion and geography, and I think the institutions of Ward 3 should try to create consistent opportunities for this – the neighborhood associations, certainly, but also houses of worship, merchant’s associations, and nonprofits and community institutions.  The ‘undebate’ put together by the neighborhood associations was really powerful, and I would certainly support any efforts to make collaboration between the associations more frequent.  If elected I would gladly participate in such efforts, and encourage them.  I noticed that Councilman Salvatore has started holding ‘neighborhood coffees’ in parks throughout his ward, which also sounds like a good idea, especially if we can encourage people to attend in parks they aren’t accustomed to using.  If we decide as a community that we’d like to move toward greater racial and economic integration in housing, we should also have a conversation about what kinds of policies and relationships we would need in order to bring that about.

4) Beyond community block grant funds, how would you specifically fund and support the community organizations and programs that do important work in our ward, such as the learning center, food pantry, youth sports, and theater? Will you work to endow these organizations for the long-term, so they can become less reliant on annual grant funding?

It is vitally important to aim CDBG funds at organizations and programs in the ward, especially those aimed at youth programming, and I will certainly do this if elected.  Our councilor should also be on the lookout for resources and supports from foundations, non-profits, the corporate world, and other parts of our government too (local, state, federal).  Many of our anchor institutions, like Brown University and Miriam Hospital, have resources, expertise and connections that could be of enormous use to people doing good work in Ward 3.  If I’m elected, I will consider it part of my job to help build these connections.  As an academic and someone who has run a non-profit adult education program for over a decade, I have some experience in doing this.  I also believe we should draw upon some of the resources we have right here in the ward.  This could include an annual fundraiser for youth programs, and encouraging area businesses and houses of worship to dedicate certain days or events to doing this too.

5) How would you address the issues of affordable housing and gentrification in Ward 3?

Providence families spend too much of their income on housing. Housing insecurity and eviction can have a lasting impact on children, emotionally, physically, and in terms of chronic absenteeism from school. I’ve seen this in my time on the School Board.  It destabilizes families, and makes it hard for them to save and build wealth. Many people are facing this in Ward 3, as gentrification raises the cost of both owning and renting, in Mt. Hope in particular.

As a professor of US history and urban studies, I teach and write about the origins of racial and economic segregation in housing.  Thus, I have a pretty good sense of the broader issues that are involved, and what could be done at the city level.  We should:

  • Consider stronger inclusionary zoning in the city and state, to ensure that affordable housing is located in areas of high opportunity, instead of reinforcing segregation.
  • Lower the landlord tax, which leads to higher rents and discourages the production and preservation of affordable rental housing.
  • Encourage non-profits to create community development corporations and land trusts in Mt. Hope, to keep some units affordable over the long haul.
  • Consider property tax breaks for long-time homeowners in Mt. Hope, to enable them to stay in their homes.
  • Avoid using tax subsidies for high-end residential development – but if they are used, some portion should go to an affordable housing trust fund.

6) How would colleagues describe your temperament, your communication style, your strengths/weaknesses? Is there a specific situation in your professional or personal life that demonstrated what type of person you are?

I have worked in a wide variety of different settings.  I am a college professor, a department chair, the director of a non-profit adult education program, and a member of the School Board.  I’ve served as the vice-chair of a Human Rights Commission.  I’ve also participated in a wide variety of professional and activist groups, committees and job searches over the years.  I believe my colleagues in all of these settings would describe me as calm, cool, collected and collaborative.  I come prepared, I listen and I ask good questions.  I don’t speak without careful thought, and rarely do so without some sort of evidence or argument to back it up.  Temperamentally, I try to put people at ease, to make them feel included, and whenever possible to use humor and personal connections to help them feel welcome.  When I find myself in situations where conflicting agendas or constituents are represented, I am hyper-aware of trying to make sure that all voices are heard, and that differences of opinion and institutional interest are not personalized.  I’ve been a teacher for 25 years, so my immediate instinct in an adversarial situation is to try and help everyone interrogate their assumptions, and seek some sort of common ground.

7) What Ward 3 community work and/or groups have you been involved in prior to deciding to run for city council?

I worked to build and express local support for the CSA last year, and through my membership in Temple Emanu-El I was briefly involved in the early stages of what later became the East Side Community Alliance.  However, most of my public engagement has been at the citywide level, working on issues that directly affect the people and institutions of Ward 3.  I’ve been on the School Board since early 2015, working on racial equity, student empowerment, more resources for English Language Learners and student refugees, and shifting resources and authority away from the central office and toward principals and educators. I strongly supported efforts to make the high school curriculum and the professional development of teachers more culturally responsive and aware. I have been a strong advocate of shifting school discipline toward restorative justice, and severing the school-to-prison pipeline. I was a vocal opponent of the Achievement First charter expansion, because of the likely financial impact on our public schools. I have been an active participant in the statewide Fix Our Schools Now coalition, which is trying to change laws at the city and state level to bring more resources to bear on the repair and construction of healthy and safe school buildings.

8) A complaint is that some city council members do not participate in enough community meetings or events. How will you devote the time to stay involved? Beyond official council business, how will you balance your personal and work life with the unofficial expectations of being a councilperson?

The Providence School Board has given me a sense of how to fit community meetings and events into my personal and professional life.  In addition to the Monday night Board meetings, I attend education-related events around the city, during the day and in the evening, during the week and on weekends.  All of that time and effort can now be aimed squarely at Ward 3.  As a college professor I have a flexible schedule.  Thus, when I’m not teaching I’m available to meet with people and attend meetings and events.  My schedule is very open in the summer.  I intend to go to all PTO and neighborhood association meetings, and to periodically attend Hope Street Merchant Association meetings too.  I also plan to hold regular ‘office hours’ at various places through the ward, so people can easily find me.  A city councilor has a key role in a diverse neighborhood like ours, to connect people and institutions that might not otherwise communicate or collaborate.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize how absolutely critical work/life balance is for my children – they’re only with us for so long – as well as for Shana and I.  I’m very purposeful about this, and respectful of such demands in the lives of others.

9) As a city councilor, how will you fight corruption, which does both real and reputational harm to our city? Do you think ethics and campaign finance policies could be improved, and if so, how? Or, are they strong enough as they are?

We need to believe in the honesty of our elected officials, if we’re going to deal with some of the problems Providence faces.  Persistent dishonesty and plunder by our elected officials — especially at the local level — has a corrosive impact.  It undermines our capacity for discussing and meeting common needs.  I think we should look into the public financing of city council elections in Providence, as is happening in Seattle and other cities.  The Council should pass the rules proposed by the Providence Ethics Commission, to strengthen its authority.  We should also prohibit members of the Council with outstanding campaign finance fines or late reports from holding leadership positions, and require that campaign finance reports regularly be posted on councilors websites (and on the Council’s own website).  The frequent use of tax subsidies to spur development can also lead to abuses, and I believe we need to rein these in.  Given the dumpster fire currently burning in Washington, it is more important than ever that local government be open, accessible, progressive, visionary, and effective.

10) Consensus building is important to be an effective councilperson, because legislation can’t be passed with just one councilperson’s vote. Describe a time when you demonstrated skill in creating consensus for change among a group of people.

Being a consensus builder is really an essential part of who I am, as a person, a classroom teacher, a board member, and a university administrator.  One simply cannot get anything done in any of those spheres, without support from and collaboration with others.  To lead an effective classroom discussion, one must know the facts, and have a sense of what one wants to accomplish in the time allotted, but otherwise listen carefully to what others say and ask, include everyone, try to get them to push their assumptions a bit, and to find common ground with others in the room.  That doesn’t mean everyone has to agree by the end of the class – far from it.  But it does mean everyone must feel informed, heard, and understood, and must have an accurate and respectful sense of where those with different views and experiences are coming from.  In an administrative or policy-making setting, of course, one often has to end the session with a decision of some sort (or several of them).  Consensus around that decision is ideal, but rare, especially in politics.  But consensus is obtainable (and important) around the fairness of the discussion and the process, and around the sense that middle ground was sought, if not found.  I am always open to evidence and persuasive argument; to me, this is a good way to achieve both good policy and some measure of consensus.

11) Please share your thoughts on jobs and business development opportunities focused on Camp Street and North Main Street. More broadly, how would you propose to connect under-employed residents with job opportunities?

We have two nonprofit anchor institutions nearby with lots of resources, expertise, and institutional self-interest in the stability and wellbeing of the neighborhood:  Brown, and Miriam Hospital (with several others not far away).  If the economic power of these anchor institutions were more effectively harnessed, they could contribute greatly to local job creation, small business development, wealth building, and the capacity of our community institutions.  In many cities, these kinds of institutions are helping to implement a new model of worker-owned and community-benefiting businesses, by investing their pension and endowment funds in local job and business creation strategies, including cooperatives and green firms, and by committing to purchase, train and hire locally.  Nonprofit anchors also have the ability to make low interest rate loans to local nonprofits.  This might be a good way to more effectively and equitably share resources within the ward.  We might also look into some of what is possible through Providence’s Neighborhood Revitalization Act, to bring local businesses to Camp Street and North Main Street.

12) Our political parties are going through upheaval and change nationwide. What changes would you make to improve your party as a whole if it was up to you, and why? Policies, strategy, etc.

I believe that too much inequality and economic insecurity undermines families, communities, and our democratic system.  Today, where one lives determines far too much about how one lives, and even how long.  And where one lives is powerfully shaped by race and class.  This is true in Providence too.  It is neither just nor sustainable.  The Democrats have to fight for living wage jobs and economic security for a multi-racial America that embraces diversity, and an economy that is ecologically and morally sustainable.  I favor a more progressive tax system and a carbon tax, used to provide universal access to quality public pre-kindergarten, and paid family leave.  A ‘Marshall Plan’ to fund ecologically sustainable public infrastructure would also help.  In the New Deal era, the Democrats created laws and programs that helped to create economic security and mobility for tens of millions of mostly white American men, building the postwar middle class.  In the 1960s, the party was dragged reluctantly and incompletely into expanding to include women and people of color, and prohibiting discrimination.  It is time to fully complete that effort, while fighting climate change and protecting our democracy from vote suppression and the power of organized money.

Hot Topic Lightning Round (50 word maximum answers)

1) Did you vote in the recent recall election? Why or why not?

Yes.  While I respect Kevin Jackson’s work over the years, I voted to recall him.  To deal with the serious issues we face, we need a trustworthy government.  I hoped a recall would build momentum for ethics reform, and a broader conversation about the diverse needs of Ward 3.

2) Providence does not currently have at-large city councilors. Many other cities do. Do you support the idea of adding at-large city council members in Providence, and why?

At-large councilors should be more focused on citywide issues, providing good balance.  The downside is that such races will be far more expensive – and those with money will have greater influence.  We would need greater limits on campaign contributions, and to give serious consideration to public financing of elections.

3) Are you in support of the overnight parking program in Providence, still technically a pilot program under executive order of the Mayor?

I’m supportive, with limits on permits per residence.  For narrower streets, we could ban parking on alternate sides during snowstorms.  Many residents are frustrated that restrictions aren’t enforced, especially near the Hope farmer’s market.  Better signage might help.  If revenue generated by the permits helps maintain sidewalks and streets, even better.

4) Smoking ban in Kennedy Plaza – for or against, and why?

A smoking ban will occupy too much police effort, and lead to harassment of the homeless.  Homelessness has many complicated causes, and criminalizing their behavior isn’t helpful.  My hesitation is that the awful health consequences of smoking are crystal clear.  I’d rather see us dedicate resources to helping people quit.

5) Providence Community Police Relations Act (formerly CSA) – for or against, and why?

I helped to organize a meeting of East Siders in September 2016, to show Elorza, Zurier and Yurdin that it had strong support here.  For years I’ve taught my students about mass incarceration and the role the criminal justice system plays in racial inequality.  The passage of the CSA was a proud and hopeful moment for Providence.