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Social justice and COVID: Local governments must rise to the challenge

Ann Simonetti
For the Bay Journal News Service

(© Fabian –

Last year at this time, our priorities for local governments were completely different from what they are now. 2020 has been a whirlwind of lifestyle changes and awakenings that have forced each of us far out of our comfort zones.

I have served in local governance for years and am proud to say I continue to learn about our ever-changing environment. From operating under a pandemic that has caused an economic crisis, to understanding the overwhelming need for social advocacy, the current events surrounding not just our Chesapeake Bay region but the entire world has called for us to be engaged as local leaders and citizens to a greater degree.

Life with COVID-19 has been, to put it succinctly, beyond difficult. It has forced local elected officials to reassess priorities in favor of the urgent and immediate needs of their communities. Reducing the workforce has compelled us to make decisions such as eliminating monitoring, street sweeping, etc., during this time.

Local leaders are prioritizing their community’s health and safety, recovering our economies and supporting our essential workers. The protection of public health must be balanced with preventing catastrophic damage to local economies. States are looking at innovative programs to offer workforce development and training, and this effort should continue.

The Civilian Conservation Corps model — created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to hire unemployed people for projects in forestry, soil conservation and recreation — might be an example that jurisdictions could consider, at proportionately smaller scales, when funding is available. Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” planted billions of trees, built hundreds of parks and wildlife refuges, and created countless miles of nature trails. All of those things, the tree-planting and wildlife sanctuaries in particular, were and still are critically important to the health of the Bay, which in turn adds resiliency to the social and economic system on which we rely.

The pandemic is not the only thing that is challenging our understanding of the world. Outside our windows, a social revolution is taking place in full force. As the world watched George Floyd became a victim of senseless, deadly brutality, it became apparent that society is extremely overdue in acknowledging — and acting on — the social, ethnic and racial injustices facing members of various communities.

Our Bay watershed regions and organizations should remain committed to working together against institutional racism. Addressing discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education is key. In dismantling racism as local leaders, we must lead by example — not merely say that all humans are created equal, but act on that belief, demonstrate it in our policies and practices. It is crucial to remain committed to encouraging diversity and inclusion within our workplace, identifying and prioritizing the needs of all people, and creating a standard toward achieving environmental justice throughout the region. It is a moral imperative that we join together to promote an inclusive social, economic and healthy Chesapeake region.

Now more than ever, with tax revenues sharply down because of economic paralysis, lack of funding is of course the primary issue for local governments in their efforts to combat the problems at hand. It is important that our state and federal governments hear our concerns and find solutions to offer monetary clarity and support for us to continue the local initiatives designed to address health, social and economic disparities.

The public is in a state of outcry, and local governments must do their part to promote awareness and institute the changes needed.

Ann Simonetti is chair of the Local Government Advisory Committee to the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program. Her views to not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal. This article was originally published in the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.