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“Stern and Kind”

Northampton mayoral candidate Shanna Fishel talks with The Shoestring about participatory budgeting, policing, and a grassroots path to victory.

By Blair Gimma

Shanna Fishel, a Northampton social worker, is running for Mayor. We conducted a phone interview with them in June. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Blair Gimma: You have spent your life promoting accountability, access and justice, and you have done that through so many different kinds of organizations and kinds of practices. Why are you now choosing municipal government as the way to seek accountability, access and justice? In what ways do you see the process of governing a population and having the power of being Mayor as different from the organizations you have been a part of and mutual aid you’ve participated in? Do you seek to incorporate the practices you’ve learned? And if so, how? One striking practice you support is participatory budgeting, for example.

Shanna Fishel: I think that all my experience thus far is what has led me to this point. The pivotal point for me to decide to jump into municipal government was January 7, when Mayor Narkewicz said that he was not running again. And that was one day after the January 6th insurrection. So I think that the timing of his announcement really struck a chord with me that there’s no time to waste in my life, or in the life of those in our city, in terms of needing equitable and justice-oriented leadership, not just in our town, but really around the world. I think the pandemic, the previous Trump administration, and many other local, national, and global experiences have shown myself and others the harmful impact of unjust leaders, and leaders that seek power. And I’m not a leader that seeks power.

Whether it was through special education, or sex education, or now through social work and welfare, I’ve seen the harmful impact of governmental decisions on the lives of individuals and communities—how, as a teacher, there was not budgeting to support family outreach. In sex education, I would be hired for one or two sessions to come, and I always thought it was like a hit and run—you’d go in there, you teach about the reproductive system but you never really get a chance to teach about concerns or accountabilities in relationships and human sexuality. And as a social worker, I continuously encounter the barriers that many of our clients experience in terms of not having enough resources, in terms of so many treatments, and necessities, if it’s helping substance use, especially housing. There’s such a lack of housing, period, and a lack of policies that are supportive, that allow transitions, for people that are struggling in life, in response to lots of life events, the trauma, and all those barriers. 

I think the reason that I’m promoting participatory budgeting is because we have a very civically active community promoting Black Lives Matter and having many pivotal demonstrations for human rights in all forums. And yet, everyone that I speak to in the city is dismayed by the huge budget that we have, and the lack of equitable services that we receive or experience in our town. I think that it’s about time that we bring a little bit more democracy into the way that we create our budget. It feels like for the last couple of decades, the budget is copy-pasted, plus some increases and decreases here and there, but no really huge changes. People in Northampton have shared with me how they feel that the city is polarized. It’s not the Northampton that they knew and loved. That’s coming from people that have grown up here that have eight generations of Northamptonites. We have this huge budget, we have a AAA bond rating, and yet we have a houselessness crisis. Our special education is not equitable for those that really need it. Our population of families of color are dwindling in our city. Those in affordable housing feel disempowered. And that’s what I experienced in the field. It’s now time to step into the position of mayor and municipal government, in order to truly have the power to spend the tax money, that belongs to the people, equitably. And I think that it’s a huge undertaking, and a huge responsibility, to manage the tax money. But it’s not new to me to manage the responsibility of being in public service. So even though it’s a leap, I feel that my character and my experience has all led me to this point.

BG: Yeah, and with participatory budgeting, there’s an aspect of it that is very much about accessibility, as well—people’s ability to be a part of their local governing. I covered City Council meetings for a year and a half straight, and I remember even a city councilor at the time who genuinely, as demonstrated by his words and commentary, very much aligned with the mayor, even he asked the mayor, ‘Would it be possible for you to share with us what you might be prioritizing before we get this very long budget?’ Mayor Narkewicz basically answered, ‘Well, I don’t have to do that.’ The idea being that even city councilors were handed a large stack of papers with the budget not knowing exactly what would be in there, and given a short period of time to go over it and ask questions. Even they felt rushed. We also see so many public commenters attending City Council meetings now and saying, ‘hey, I want to participate.’ So how would you prioritize that as mayor, to make sure as many people feel that they can participate as possible?

SF: Yeah, I think that’s crucial. Even at the previous City Council meeting last week, there was the question like, ‘well, when can we make any changes to the budget?’ The Council can always recommend decreases, or they can not approve the budget. The Mayor was like, ‘Well, I submitted it 45 days before it’s due.’ And all discussion has to be in open meeting. So it really is a disempowered experience and process in municipal government, and there are really not enough checks and balances. If it’s on a local level, we should have local power. It’s really dismissive of the democratic process, to see how Northampton has allowed such a process to proceed time and time again. I think that the issue really is about justice and accessibility, because obviously, we have public comment access. We’ve seen that especially over the last year with hundreds rising, and sharing really important personal experience with policing. Really that is, right now, the main focus on the budget. In a way, though, it still hijacks the conversation, because nobody’s really focusing on any other parts of the budget. There might be other things that have been pushed in there, and there isn’t enough time, there isn’t enough transparency in a timely manner to really address all the different parts of the budget.

BG: One could describe our current Mayor as technocratic, you know, ‘These are the rules, I followed them, I didn’t break them.’ So coming in with your experience, do you see a way in which you can create more accessibility in the process, even within the confines of what is demanded by the charter?

SF: First of all, I think that we can change the charter. I mean, rules that don’t fit, like slavery, we shoot them down, and we dismantle oppressive systems and we build again. So I don’t think that it’s beyond the scope of humanity to revisit the city charter and see how we create our budget. How do we keep the power in check? How do we involve the community? I think that participatory budgeting still needs to be adapted to our place. I’ve gone through many research articles, and it has been adopted in many different cities across the world and in the United States. In so many communities, it has failed because the first couple of years there is a lot of involvement, and then that decreases. So I think that we have to first assess the needs and the capacity of the city, and the capacity of the city councilors as representatives, to support this process of allowing citizens to participate in the budget. It can also happen without a change of the charter. It just means open communication and transparency, and that comes back to that idea of access, right?  …[But] it’s about time that we empower our city councillors to actually make changes in the budget and not just view it and decrease, but actually have an impact on it and have open communication through the city councilors to the different wards to really understand what equity will mean and look like in our city.

[At this point, the interview paused for a minute while Fishel tended to their children. When they returned, Fishel had this to say about how raising children and their other life experiences relate to the job of governing:]

It takes a village. It really does. I think that I’ve always known that I’d be a parent. I know we’re off the questions, but the other day I had to make a really difficult decision with a client, and as a team we had some difficult options for him, related to substance use in his residency. It was a six hour ongoing process about making sure that he’s safe and well and that we’re doing what we are tasked to do as social services. At the end of the day, my coworker turned to me and said, ‘You’re stern, and kind. And you do that really well.’ And I think that’s how I parent as well. That’s what I want to bring into city government. I, first and foremost, am kind and compassionate, and promote and believe, to my core, the right to dignity for all human beings. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a wishy-washy person. I take all my jobs and all my tasks extremely seriously. I am stern, especially with boundaries, and I think that’s why I was really good sex educator, because I understand boundaries very well and have always had personal boundaries that are very strong as well. So the way that I parent is sort of very similar to how I am a social worker and how I was an educator and how I plan to be a leader for our communities. Stern and kind.

BG: So what is your vision for the Department of Community Care in its first year, considering that Mayor Narkewicz’s budget was passed with the department receiving significantly less funding than what was recommended by the Policing Review Commission?

SF: Yeah, I mean, we’ll have to make that budget work for us. I think that we will have to use some of the grant monies that were talked about. I know that we secured the $150,000 from Senator Comerford, and the state budget, and I know that there’s federal grants coming to municipalities for recovery, so we’ll have to use some of those for the Department of Community Care. I think the budget should have started with $1 million dollars to be able to use for, first of all, community assessment and outreach, paying for the Advisory Committee. I think that it’s about time that advisory committees, just like the Police Review Committee, should be a paid grant position, and really value the time and effort of marginalized identities to be part of the political process. So we’ll just have to have the budget work for us and do it as ethically as possible. 

I expect to cut the police budget in the year following and fully fund a Community Care department. I can’t guarantee 50% because I understand the concept of, we have to make sure that our Department of Community Care is available for covering some of the lack of services from police in terms of mental health crisis. I think the faster we have that up and running, the faster we can get to a 50% reduction in the police department. And that might include also infrastructure transfers, like putting speed traps by camera, instead of paying police to sit there and hunt down people—usually people of color—that are speeding, or their license expired, their car inspection expired. 

And also, even though our school budget is the highest budget in our pie chart, people are still very disappointed—families and teachers—about the special education services. So it’s not just the Department of Community Care that needs a budget. The current budget cannot be copy-pasted anymore. We really have to do revisions and in the first year I will aggressively pursue federal and state money for community assessments. It’s been quite a time and the last community assessment was not equitable. The first year will be a little tough, but we’ll get to where we want to be. I believe that we can do it. 

BG: So, The Shoestring attended a retail task force meeting in 2018. It was a task force composed of some local business owners, some state government representatives, a union representative, and a business representative. And we witnessed local business owners asking this task force to get Amazon to pay sales tax and the task force responding that just wasn’t possible, that was off the table. And of course, these Northampton business owners were asking because they’re trying to keep the doors open, and their businesses are hurting. We then witnessed local business owners advocating to take away sick days from workers, advocating paying teenage workers less than a minimum wage, and advocating ending time and a half on Sundays, which ultimately happened. So I share that account just because, through our coverage, and through a lot of community members who have reached out to our publication, we have seen a disconnect between a public-facing benevolent small business owner, and the way that workers are treated—the workers that sell those business owners their labor. I know you were a union member, as a teacher, and I know that as mayor, one of your actions is to also make sure small business owners, you know, survive. I guess I just wanted to bring to light this tension between the workforce and business owners in our community, and ask how, as mayor, you will be able to address both?

SF: Yeah. Very good question. Very good information, some that I did not know. I think that oftentimes the mayor and the local government is listening more to the business owners and not the workforce. And we need to change that. Whether it’s by paid advisory board, or just not answering, ‘We can’t do that.’ That’s not an answer that I’m willing to accept. I think that having Amazon pay local taxes for lost revenue is a great idea. I would love to see that happen. And I think that if it can’t happen because of whatever reason they were citing, that just means that, as mayor, I would join the coalition of mayors across the nation, I’m sure there’s other cities that are proposing similar things, and make it a national amendment that Amazon needs to pay back to municipalities for lost revenues, and then the federal government will be responsible for making sure that that can happen. So I think that as mayor, I will not accept any answer that ‘we can’t do that.’ I will say, ‘Okay, then that means it’s going to be tough, and let’s see how we can do it. What kind of upper power do we need to rely on?’ 

I always feel that the struggles that we have between ourselves is really just capitalism at work. We have to look above us, because it is a hierarchy. It’s not that the problem is really between business owners and the workforce, because business owners also have to survive. The fact that they have a business does not mean that they’re making six figures a year. I think that we have to not increase the flame of conflict between owners and workforce, but actually see, like, why is this conflict occurring? Why are they pushing one way or the next and how can we access more equitable funding for both needs? How can we support businesses to not close up while providing equitable pay for their workforce? It’s probably a problem that’s not going to be solved just in the municipal arena, but we really need to look above us, regionally, state, and nationally, to see how the powers that be are creating the situation, and what can we do to change it, because an answer that ‘That can’t happen’ is just not acceptable. 

BG: Yeah, I mean, there’s a pretty large population of worker-owner cooperatives in our area in the valley.

SF: Yes, I love that. I love it. It’s like the best thing ever.

BG: You’re running against Gina-Louise Sciarra, in addition to other people. But Gina-Louise, through her seven years on City Council, has accumulated support from existing city power structures. So how do you plan to win?

SF: Grassroots! Meeting people where they’re at. I’m already canvassing, knocking on doors, and time and time again, people are saying to me, ‘This is so early. I’m undecided.’ I’m like, ‘Great, I’ll be back.’ So I’ve been canvassing, I’ve been talking to the media, I’ve been calling constituents, really connecting to people on a personal level. It’s a tough, tough race, because of the political structure of power. But I believe, and I know from experience in my life as well as the campaign in the last couple of months, that whenever people meet me, unless they are part of the GL power structure, I win their vote. The other day, I even knocked on the door of a Republican, he popped up on my [voter accessing app]. We talked, and I got his vote. He was so excited to talk to me. So I know that I’m a kind of person that sees across the aisle, and I’m really a healer. I think right now our community needs to heal. And when people meet me, they see that I’m a genuine, caring, kind and stern person. 

So I believe in our vision, and I’m saying ‘our vision’ because I take feedback. I take a lot of meaning from feedback. So I keep changing my perspective, and I keep adding to my values and visions. And I think that’s grassroots as well, that I’m not a static politician. The more people I meet, the more they’ll already see that I am one that you can influence for the better and that I’m teachable. And if something is important, I will rise to the occasion. I think that’s the true power of leadership.

Blair Gimma is a co-editor at The Shoestring.

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