The following text is a reprint of a speech given by LA city councilwoman Jan Perry to Sinai Temple on Dec. 19, 2009.
It is a great pleasure and honor for me to be here today. Rabbi Wolpe has been gracious to extend an invitation for me to spend a few minutes with you and I was very happy to have the opportunity to do so. I was deeply honored by the Anti-Defamation League earlier this year as a recipient of the ‘Deborah Award.’ Many people were surprised when I accepted the award that I declared as an African American, and as a Jewish woman the award meant a great deal to me.
Deborah was known for her great courage and functioned in many leadership roles: Military, Prophetess and Judge – women of the Torah offer us lessons in leadership courage, and the wise use of power. As an elected official, I make important decisions and take actions that require fortitude of mind, strong convictions, and the courage that accompanies the development of public policy.
Strong leadership requires consistency, and a commitment to bringing understanding, compassion to decision-making, and faith in ones own ability. The Legislative process is detailed, and takes time. Reasoning ability, communication, willingness to debate and defend ideas, and the tenacity needed to win is effortful and at times very hard.
In part, the faith I have in myself comes from my deep belief in my family. The stern lessons they taught me are derived from their life experience and their first-hand accounts of some very harsh realities including fighting hard to find success in a divided country. It comes from the lessons about how determined efforts may not always win out, but that a determined effort grounded in faith, hard work, and belief in our ability to make things work better is worth the effort.
As a councilwoman, I am committed to making the mechanisms of government work harder and better for our city and for the people I represent. As a new office holder, you want to accomplish everything. You want to show the people that placed their faith in you what you are made of and how well you will do the job. And you want the perception about how you work to be a positive one, one that fits your own estimation of yourself and your values.
My journey as a Jewish, African American woman and elected official has also relied on my ability to place my faith in the political process. My faith has instilled in me the importance of a value-based decision making and sustained me in my work, my personal life and my desire to bring justice to my constituents.
I have worked hard to address environmental justice by undoing decades of degradation to our south Los Angeles neighborhoods where industrial uses were developed in single home communities. I have secured significant resources for our parks and development of affordable work force and family housing. I have worked to bring a greater focus on the homeless population and fought against indifference and a wrong-headed approach to addressing this chronic condition in our city.
Most of the homeless population in our city is African American men. The average age continues to go up. This is a disturbing trend since older homeless adults have the additional problems of aging and require a system of care to meet those needs as well.
The answer to homelessness is not complicated, the answer is housing. Housing that is designed to meet the needs of the homeless people whether it’s simply affordable family housing, or permanent supportive housing for persons with a history of long term chronic homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.
For decades we allowed people to live on the street and conduct their lives in the most self destructive manner. We had to begin to change that. Addressing homelessness does not give you a political advantage, but it is the right thing to do. Choosing not to face the truly serious issues in our communities leaves that obligation to others. Good public policy should be based on what we know not what we choose to ignore.
One recent choice I made was to ride along with a Rabbi as Chaplain for the LAPD in South Los Angeles. It was an opportunity to see first hand what our officers face every day in real time. His calming presence was immediate at some truly horrific incidents.
Now, our city is facing unprecedented fiscal challenges that will continue to force us to make difficult choices, choices that will hurt a lot of people. Our social safety net is broken and a reduction in services will impact our citizens across the age spectrum from children to seniors.
It takes courage to make hard decisions. It will take a sense of justice to include all points of view in our debates and we will have to define what an “essential service” is. The term essential service” has a different meaning for so many, including my colleagues on the city council.
It will take leadership, and it will take faith in the values we hold both individually and as a political body to get through the next two years. My job along with my colleagues is to view the city as a whole during the challenging period ahead. It is not after all what I want or what any individual council member wants that is as important as what is best for the city.
I take my faith seriously; it informs me and keeps me strong. Giving thoughtful consideration to the decisions I make as an elected official is made far easier because of my faith and the strength I draw from it. Making things happen in government is a challenge. The work I have done to create jobs, build housing for the homeless and working poor, and address environmental concerns has in part defined who I am as an elected official.
I recently read a piece by Rabbi Wolpe that I appreciate. He wrote, and, I paraphrase here:
“ . . . . . that we must live as if we are fine, even when we know that we are not. Life is to love more, care more, risk more and be more thoughtful . . . ” The journey continues, the lessons bring growth and strengthen my capacity as a leader. I believe that I have conveyed to my constituents, the values I bring to decision-making and that those values are what my faith as a Jewish woman have given me. Thank you Rabbi for inviting me to share my thoughts today at Sinai Temple, it is an honor to be here.