The Race and Wealth Podcast Network

FHRJ Episode 8: Interview with Ashley Fox, Deputy Chief of Staff for Council Member Elissa Silverman

September 28, 2020 The Race & Wealth Team on how to close the racial wealth divide through art, media, policy, literacy, and action
The Race and Wealth Podcast Network
FHRJ Episode 8: Interview with Ashley Fox, Deputy Chief of Staff for Council Member Elissa Silverman
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The Race and Wealth Podcast Network
FHRJ Episode 8: Interview with Ashley Fox, Deputy Chief of Staff for Council Member Elissa Silverman
Sep 28, 2020
The Race & Wealth Team on how to close the racial wealth divide through art, media, policy, literacy, and action
Transcript
Dyalekt:

Freedom, home and the right job. Failure, hardship without reassessing judgment. If you're finally here to recognize the journey, we can find hope and real joy with FHRJ, The Fair Housing and Racial Justice podcast with Rose Ramirez, the civil rights investigator of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. FHRJ the housing and racial justice podcast is part of the race and wealth network.

Rose Ramirez:

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for joining us for another edition of the Fair Housing and Racial Justice podcast. I'm here today with Ashley Fox who's joining us from Councilmember Alyssa Silverman's office. She is her Deputy Chief of Staff. Welcome, Ashley.

Ashley Fox:

Thanks so much for having me.

Rose Ramirez:

Great. Great. So I want to just get started by asking you kind of a little bit about what Councilmember Alyssa Silverman's views are, you know what your priorities are, in this coming year. We're entering 2020 for DC and the district.

Ashley Fox:

Sure, well, for listeners who might not be familiar with the way that local DC government instruction, the council is the district's primary legislative body. So it consists of 13 members, five of which are considered citywide. And Alyssa Silverman is one of those city wide members. And so in our responsibility as the council, we are the primary legislative body, but also the oversight body. And so that means that the executive side, the mayor side provides direct services and we ensure that legislatively, those services are meeting residents needs. So for us, we are really focused on housing coming up. Council woman is the chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee. And so within that we have really, really been pushing on how to make job opportunities more accessible to residents in the district, particularly residents who are in lower income areas aren't benefiting from the economic boom, equitably. you see, is really booming, and has a number of growing opportunities, and folks are not benefiting equally. So that's a really big focus on the commodity side. But outside of that affordable housing is also tangentially related. In addition to that, we do a lot in the securement and contracting space that she sits on a committee that focuses on that, in addition to youth and recreation affairs, which is kind of our parks and rec focus agency. So providing some of the more fun city services that also have to do a lot with community development and resources for youth, which also are directly related to labor issues, since we know that youths who aren't in jobs are often doing other things.

Rose Ramirez:

Okay, yeah, of course. So, one of the things I want to touch on, because this is something that we do here at NCRC is this idea of housing. There was a gentrification report that was put out, I'm not sure if you're familiar with it, around gentrification across the country, but particularly one of the areas that was highlighted was the District of Columbia, because it was gentrifying at such a fast rate. And so I kind of want to just wonder what your personal views were on that data and your thoughts on, you know, what we can do to move forward? Or what ideas you have in how to address the gentrification? Definitely the displacement of those communities that have been, you know, in this city that have made it chocolate city, and now that we're no longer seeing a chocolate city? What does that look like for them?

Ashley Fox:

Yeah, that's a great question. I am familiar with the quarter I remember, read the report. And I have to thank NCRC, for doing a deep dive into this. And I think gentrification is a hot topic issue across the country. And we're talking, I think one of the things that the report highlighted really well is when we're talking about gentrification, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. You know, one of the challenges and it's funny that you reference DC is chocolate city is actually considered as a quick aside required reading for our office prior to joining. And so there's a book called chocolate city. That is a history of the city over the last 20 to 30 years, it was written by two local reporters. And within that it really sets the context for a lot of what was discussed in the report. So for those who are listening, if you're unfamiliar, I encourage you to check out that book. But I was really surprised by some of the findings. Visually, we see this happening in the city, but folks don't always understand the policy dynamics that are at play, as all of these things are happening. And in particular, I think the areas in the city that were were highlighted as kind of hotbeds of gentrification and displacement, which separation of the two I think was another really important distinction in that report was surprising for me as a resident. Partly because I've lived almost exclusively in some of the areas that were highlighted and can attest as a resident to some of the neighborhood changes. Another thing that stood out about the report was just the importance of understanding the interplay between policy decisions and resident involvement in those decisions, and then also capital and what it means for people to have not just social capital, but also political capital and financial capital, and how all of these things work together.

Rose Ramirez:

Yeah. And I think that that's, um, you know, I like that you bring up like this idea of like capital and social capital and being involved in policies and what all that means, because I think a lot of the times when people are talking about gentrification, you kind of touched on this a little bit, when you're talking about the difference between gentrification and displacement, that there's a difference there. So Someone once told me, you know, we talked about gentrification, as it's a good thing, like no one is anti gentrification. And for me, that's problematic, because for me, gentrification means that it includes displacement. Now, if we're talking about driving social capital into communities of color, if we're talking about driving resources into asset poor communities that have continued to be deprived and stripped by policies that they have not been included on that they have not been thought of that they have not been at the table. If we're talking about just driving capital into those communities, then we're talking about economic mobility. We're talking about community development, we're talking about neighborhood investment. We're not talking about gentrification, so for me, gentrification, specifically to me includes displacement. You know, we're talking about investing capital then. Okay, let's talk about neighborhood revitalization. That's, that's fine. Let's not try to make these the same thing. Right. So I guess like as a resident in a city that is in the top five gentrified cities, right. What can you I guess, what ideas? Do you have to ensure that gentrification doesn't keep pushing people out? Right, that we make sure that this is neighborhood revitalization and capital being driven into neighborhoods without pushing people out?

Ashley Fox:

Sure. That's a good question. Just to backtrack for a second, when we're talking about gentrification and displacement, this is something I think the report also did a good job of pulling out and we're talking about cultural displacement. And so for someone like me, who is a black millennial woman with a college degree earning, you know, being able to afford not necessarily the market rate for talking about affordability is 30% of income, you know, going toward your housing. So maybe that's a bit

Rose Ramirez:

yeah, no one can afford to live in DC.

Ashley Fox:

But you know, being able to pay, yeah, I'm able to pay it. And I think when we're talking about, you know, I really had to think critically about my own role and gentrification discussion, because I think contributing to maybe the cultural soundness of a city, happens in a lot of different ways. But disrupting normal neighborhood structures, as somebody who is not originally from the community also has implications. And those happen on maybe softer levels where we don't see them as directly. But But I think sometimes more talking about non white folks who are moving into neighborhoods and would be considered gentrifiers, we have to also be part of this discussion in a really critical way. And to your question about how we can put more safeguards in place. So there are legislative things, I think that can be done. But I think, particularly in DC, my perspective is that we should do a much, much better job of engaging residents around issues that matter to them. So one way that that looks like is my boss, Councilmember Silverman introduced legislation that was called an anti displacement bill, it was displacement Prevention Act. And what it did was identified specific tracks in areas that would have anticipated economic growth. So either, you know, a supermarket or something was coming to a neighborhood that was anticipating either additional economic growth around the area was definitely going to try about property values within a certain percentage. So for tracks that were within a certain radius of whatever that development was going to be.

Rose Ramirez:

It's usually like a Wholefoods or a froyo.

Ashley Fox:

So in this case, actually, the inspiration for the bill came from the entertainment sports arena. And prior to talking about this discussion of displacement, just the the conversation around whether or not to build the arena and what value it was going to bring to the community was a very heated one. So as a result of that conversation, she introduced this legislation to basically say, okay, we're going to build this arena. For those in the arena, for those who are not familiar is in a lower income part of the city. It's located over in concretize, which is in Ward A and a lot of the area around the arena, who's going to see property values rising as other things move in. So the bill basically added protections, homeowner protections for folks who are going to be in those areas. And it required things like legal counseling, afford rent, or we're being told that they are going to have to sell or we're not sure what what opportunities were available to them to make sure that they could actually afford to stay in their homes. Unfortunately, the legislation didn't move forward. And I think that goes to a broader conversation about appetites among legislative bodies, who's being voted in but also, when there are other factors involved, that may be influenced the development that comes to other parts of the city is to think critically about what we value as a body, not just in specific neighborhoods. And that really takes a community.

Rose Ramirez:

Yeah. So I want to circle back a little bit to our own role and being part of the discussion. So not just collaboration input from residents and individuals that are continuing to be displaced. But I say this all the time. Like, I'm not a native Washingtonian. And I moved into 14th Street. So I never knew Northwest like for I don't, yeah, I know the history of it. But like the 14, then you I know is the 14, then you were I like go to my whole foods where I like walk to, you know, my gym, and like, that's the 14th and U I know, right? And I'm able to benefit from that when it's not my community, it's not mine to benefit from is a little bit of the way I feel. And so I guess, in kind of collaborating and figuring out ways to create input, and work with not only the community, but developers and individuals that are moving to this city that may not be able to ever purchase a home, we can definitely afford to pay and live in, you know, occupy these spaces. What is our role in that? And how do we collaborate with the community residents and developers to share our input about best practices to kind of remedy this problem?

Ashley Fox:

Yeah, I mean, I think it first starts with sometimes having to bring your governing body to the community. So for us in the city, hearings on things that are impacting residence happen at 10am. on a Tuesday, they happen at one o'clock on a Thursday, prime working hours and for things that maybe impacts families or children, you know, they're not happening even at six o'clock, with childcare available. So I think you being more creative in general, and I have to give credit to different members at the Council who have been very experimental and creative in the ways that they've tried to engage the community and bring the public comment period directly to their neighbors. But I think structurally, these are barriers. And there are more ways that we can use city resources to eliminate some of those, I think they're pretty feasible. Outside of that, though, you know, as technology advances, government doesn't always advance as quickly. So we're now very mobile friendly, we are doing things online and even for older residents who maybe aren't connected, technically, finding ways to use mailings or doing door to door and I think there are some significant barriers to getting representative populations being voices at the Council. And, and I think this probably isn't just limited to DC, I'm sure there are plenty of other local jurisdictions who face these challenges as well. But I do think that we can, we can also be a lot more creative about the ways that we talk about things and this is where your community engagement arm really matters. So if I am talking to you in total jargon that doesn't mean anything to somebody who has to worry about making sure that their three kids get fed, gotta get dressed, put in bed, kind of watermark, you know, making it accessible and repackaging things. I think we see lots of other sectors doing this in really interesting ways taking non sexy things and making them interesting and digestible for people. And government can do that, too. I mean, I think local government in particular is you are the viewer the most direct form of services to residents and being able to be, I think, a little bit more malleable.

Rose Ramirez:

Yeah, especially I'm just very conscious of, I guess, like the direct impact and like the day to day struggles that like residents are having to go through to address all of these issues. And one of the things that I guess I wanted to ask in DC was, what are you seeing as kind of like the biggest driver of economic disparities or the lack of affordable housing? Is it just developers coming in building your entertainment stadiums? And those kinds of things? Is it your Amazon's coming in and buying up and getting tax credits for that? What is the biggest driver would you say, for the city in general, as to the driver of economic disparities?

Ashley Fox:

You know, what we're seeing in our role, particularly on the committee side with labor and workforce development is education. It's education, access to job opportunities, and the district. Overwhelmingly, the job market caters towards folks who have four year degrees and or advanced degrees, and a lot of native Washingtonians. And people who have moved through the district's public school system are not equal, they are just not equipped to move into these higher earning roles. And so what's left our service industry jobs, minimum wage jobs that cannot support, they can't provide you a living wage. So we're talking about capital, and we're talking about access. I mean, for us, the jobs conversation is directly linked to education, which obviously trickles into your ability to afford to live.

Rose Ramirez:

Yeah, sounds like also, not to cut you off. But it sounds also that you're, you're making like a almost like a wage argument as well as to like what we do around wages, because even if we can do a lot around education and making sure that we're kind of bringing up the next generation, not displacing the next generation, obviously, but also making sure that they have access to those resources of maybe I'm just being creative here, like more STEM programs for Black and Brown, you know, children colors, they're like, so making sure that like they have those resources, but also making sure that individuals that are already residents of those cities, and aren't going to have the opportunity to gain that education and have already been living here. What is what are their wages look like? Right? And how do we bring them up? Yeah,

Ashley Fox:

so you raise a good point. I mean, I think the so we're talking about a living wage, and that means different things in different places, but it's distinctively different from the minimum wage in DC, a living wage is significantly higher. And we have. So there are a couple of issues, I think, when we're talking about the workforce space in general. So one of them is how we're taking residents who went to college isn't for everybody. Now we're taking residents who maybe already have skill development other areas and putting them on tracks. So cities do this really well, the district is trying to become better and apprenticeship opportunities, so ways that we can pay people to learn new skills. But also, there are some wage theft issues as well, and so on, that's on the enforcement side. And I think we've been trying to be much more focused and diligent in addressing some of those issues. But the city also has specific laws to set aside jobs for residents. It's here, it's called the first horse law. And actually, our committee has oversight over this program. The first horse law is intended to take development projects and say, a certain portion of development projects that take a certain amount of city government money, and are required to have to hire a percentage of District residents. Unfortunately, that program has not been enforced widely. And so we've got a lot of growth in areas of the city that are being gentrified. Or maybe historically, you don't have a lot of other economic boom happening. And residents in the area, in theory are supposed to be able to be getting jobs on these development projects, and it's just not happening. So I think that's one way in particular, that we can really use already existing legislation to improve outcomes of residents.

Rose Ramirez:

Perfect. Um, so I definitely want to have you back for a longer conversation. Because I mean, I think that we're getting into so many things, and we were talking more about like housing and gentrification, but I think that we could spend a lot of time here. I just want to kind of leave we usually ask each one of our guests kind of what does racial justice or economic justice mean to you and you can, you know, directly correlate that to housing and affordable housing in the District of Columbia or to you personally in regards to what racial justice and economic justice means to you?

Ashley Fox:

Yeah, that was a great question. So I have a shifting perspective on what that means, actually from from taking this role and local government. So I previously was in the nonprofit space. And I think now, it really has meant to me redefining how residents engage with decision makers, but also redefining how people see their role in the decision making process as a person of color. And I think there's a lot of work to be done in communities of color around how they see themselves as players. And a lot of this is systemic. So if you systemically have been xed out of being a participant, that there is a rebuilding process of saying no, actually, you do have a seat, there's a shifting that has to happen. And I think government and local elected officials play a role in that shifting and consciously have to pull people in and say, No, you actually are a participant and you are a decision maker, and you do play a role in helping me make a decision. So to your question about racial justice in particular, I think that means for, for our white legislators that they also have to have this critical lens, looking at things through a race sensitive lens, looking at things through a lens that says, Okay, I know that there are systemic issues here that need to be changed. And for folks who might be listening in like, I don't really know what that means learning, learning what it means. The first the first step is, Hey, I don't know what they are. And the second is figure trying to figure out put yourself in place and connect with people who can help you understand it. And in cities that are have very large minority populations. I think that's especially important. DC is certainly one of them. And we want legislation and our legislators, I think, to be reflective of the city as a whole.

Rose Ramirez:

Yeah, and I think that that's always important. There's always like this idea of, you know, systems that were put in place to not only kind of conserve and ensure the wealth building and the empowerment and strength of very straight white male dominance. And so if that was a system that was created in order to change that, I think that it's important for everyone else to be involved now that those priorities have changed and shifted and who we are as a country has changed. So I think that that's actually like a really great answer. I love it.

Ashley Fox:

I have to say, so DC is, uh, you know, overwhelmingly democratic, and we were 99% voted voted Democrat in this last presidential cycle. You raise such an important point about what is happening at the national level. And we are in a unique space city with an administration that does not reflect our city's values. And now more than ever, I think local legislators where residents are most directly feeling the impact, have to make decisions to stand up and say, these are not reflective of our city values and actively address legislatively the things that are happening at the national level. And sometimes that is, I think, an uncomfortable thing to do. But, you know, I think you just raised such an important point that it is the responsibility of local legislators. Harmful things that happen from the national level? Yeah.

Rose Ramirez:

Well, thank you so much, Ashley, for joining me. I can't wait to have you on for a longer conversation about all things impacting DC. All right. Thank you so much.