When justice knocks

Betsy PickleLet's Talk

Operating on the premise that I can never have too many Zoom meetings, I accepted a church friend’s invitation to tune in to the Justice Knox Nehemiah Assembly on Monday night. I thought it might be interesting to hear what a bunch of religious rabble rousers had to say, even though I wouldn’t be able to rouse rabble myself.

As it turned out, I was happy to shut up and listen, impressed with what the speakers, government honchos and elected officials had to say during the meeting at the World’s Fair Park Amphitheater.

According to its website, Justice Knox is “an interfaith collaboration of congregations and organizations” that “actively uncovers injustice and mobilizes the community to create just, fair and effective solutions.” The foundational concept comes from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, in which Nehemiah calls together a “great assembly” to help him achieve justice.

Housing: No. 1 on the agenda was affordable housing. Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon has proposed in her 2021-22 budget spending $8.1 million on affordable-housing projects, in addition to seeking an ordinance to establish the Knoxville Affordable Housing Fund, a $50 million city commitment over the next 10 years. Affordable housing goes a long way toward improving communities and making economic success possible, so it’s a no-brainer for Justice Knox.

But is it a given with City Council? Well, organizers lined up council members Tommy Smith (District 1), Seema Singh (District 3), Lauren Rider (District 4), Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie (District 6), and at-large members Lynne Fugate, Janet Testerman and Amelia Parker and asked each one whether he or she would support the proposals. All of them said yes.

Council members Andrew Roberto (District 2) and Charles Thomas (District 5) were not present, but with seven votes, the affordable-housing initiatives seem certain to pass. First reading of the budget is at today’s 6 p.m. council meeting. Kincannon also attended and sent a strong signal of solidarity for the Justice Knox agenda.

Education: The topic of education brought out some other big guns, including Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas and Board of Education member Daniel Watson (District 3). The Justice Knox leaders zeroed in on the disparity in discipline between white and Black students in the county and extolled the concept of “restorative practices,” a way of strengthening relationships between individuals and communities. Thomas was asked if the school administration was willing to partner with the International Institute for Restorative Practices to develop programs within KCS, and he said yes. Watson also vowed support for the concept.

Transportation: An emotional video illustrating the hardships faced by members of the community who have no personal transportation introduced a discussion on transit improvement. KAT board chair Chris Crouch said he welcomed the idea of innovative, more direct transit options.

The flow of the evening elicited cohesion and approval from most of the 100-plus in-person and over 1,000 online attendees, although some Zoom commenters took issue with Thomas not mentioning including students as he tries to address school problems. But the final topic – supporting mental-health services – stirred passions on more than one level.

Mental Health: First was a heartrending video in which a mother quietly but powerfully recounted the sad story of her son’s descent into mental illness and the insufficient care available to him. Society failed him by relegating him to the revolving door of incarceration. Creating cooperation between mental-health providers and law enforcement could take pressure off crowded jails and actually give people with mental illness a chance to get better and have a better life.

The frustration was obvious as it was pointed out that Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has the power to create a mental-health partnership but has refused to do so – has refused even to meet with members of Justice Knox to discuss the matter.

Jacobs’ absence was palpable, and the Zoom comments were not kind. Is the mayor afraid to wrestle with a problem that requires so many layers of insight and investment? Does he fear seeming weak by admitting that the county has failed some of its most vulnerable residents?

What is it about Justice Knox’s request to meet that scares him? Because when justice knocks, mayor, you should be prepared to answer.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran reporter and editor who occasionally likes to share her opinions with KnoxTNToday readers.

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