This entry is part 15 of 20 in the series 2011 City Council Campaign

Speaking at a town hall forumLast night was the second scheduled event during the general election cycle when candidates for an at-large position on City Council got together to answer questions from people in the community about issues facing Richmond.  More so than the Chamber-sponsored debates last week, I thought the questions posed by attendees revealed a lot about what's on the hearts and minds of members of our community.

We were asked about education, access to affordable housing, how to pay for proposed improvements in City government, the local Latino population, the community's relationship with its workers, what we can do to keep more college graduates here, whether Council members should be injecting themselves into private business decisions, and more.

But I think the one question that was probably most  piercing for all of us was from Toivo Asheeke, who asked what we as Council members would do to restore a sense of hope and empowerment to people who live in Richmond.  It's a huge, important, emotional question, and as Toivo was quoted as saying in today's Palladium-Item, our answers as candidates were indeed "insufficient."

As candidates running for one seat on a 9-seat local legislative body in a small city in the Midwestern U.S., it might be tempting to shrug off the call to play a role in restoring hope and empowerment in our citizens.  And politicians should rightly be careful to make promises they can't keep - if you believed the statements that sometimes came out of President Obama's election campaign, for example, as soon as he was sworn in there was going to be so much hope and empowerment flowing in the streets we'd choke on it; how's that working out for us?

But I do think restoring hope and a sense of empowerment is something City Council can impact here in Richmond, and that's what I said last night:

On the matter of hope, I said that we're living in a world where hope is hard to come by globally, as economies decline, fuel prices rise and the gap between rich and poor grows larger, so it makes sense that the tension and uncertainty in the air is here in Richmond too.  But I think that every community has an opportunity to redefine what makes it hopeful.  We can shift from a culture that suggests you find hope in wealth, cool products/gadgets/clothes and defining yourself as a consumer to a culture that finds hope in the relationships we build with our neighbors and families, the way we treat other people, the way we care for those in need.  If we can show that hope exists in our humanity and in people instead of in economic indicators, I think we can model a life that our community members - especially young people - will find more hope in.

On the matter of empowerment, I agreed with Toivo that this is an area that City Council has done a disservice to the community, especially around the matter of the defunding of the Human Rights Commission.   As I said last night, you can argue the point of whether or not we need a government-funded HRC - that's fine - but it should have been a two-way conversation that reflected a serious engagement by Council members with the perspectives and viewpoints brought by members of this Community.  Instead, it was a one-way conversation, with most members of Council agreeing outside of public meetings how they would vote and then not responding to the many concerns, questions and pleas for dialog that came from their constituents.  There are few things more disempowering than to feel like the elected officials who represent you at a local level - where the impact is felt most directly - are not listening, not willing to talk through the nuances of an issue, in some cases not even willing to respond.

That has to change.  If we want voters to care about an election, that has to change.  If we want our young people to feel more engaged with the civic life of Richmond, that has to change.  And if we want to build a version of Richmond that actually reflects the hopes and needs of its residents, that has to change.

I really appreciated Toivo's question, challenging as it was.  My particular hope today is that voters here continue to push candidates for office with such thoughtful and relevant questions.  It's good for us, and it's definitely good for Richmond.