Open Letter to Whittier's Mayor re: "Blight"

Open Letter to Whittier's Mayor re: "Blight"

Good morning, Mayor Joe Vinatieri,

I don’t believe that we have ever met. My name is Jonathan Edwards. I have lived in Whittier for the last eight years, and have taught social studies and special education for the WUHSD for the last ten. I love being a part of this city.

Yesterday, I received your “urgent message” in the mail, as I assume many of my neighbors did. To begin, I was happy to see the good things that Whittier has done to assist those in need. Over the last month, my students have been collecting change to donate to Whittier First Day. Over the Thanksgiving break, I was able to drop off a check for $479 at their offices. All from quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies! I wanted to show my students that small things matter, and that we are all in this together because we are Whittier.

I have watched you from afar and I know that we have our political differences. I also saw you at the funeral of our mutual friend, Ted Knoll, a beautiful man and long time advocate for Whittier’s house-less population. I think we both agree that his presence is deeply missed in this time.

Your “urgent message” decried multiple times that the house-less are allowed to “trespass on public property.” I assume that you also do not want them to camp out on private property. This of course leaves little to no other options for people who already must feel disenfranchised. As I’m sure you have read just this week, the U.S. government has announced changes to our country’s food stamp program that will affect thousands of our most vulnerable and hungry citizens. You and I must agree that the housing crisis, as we experience it in Whittier, is much bigger than just our beloved home.

The real issue that I take with your mailer is your use of the word “blight” in describing what is going on. You are quoted as saying “I’m not going to rest until the blight is removed from our community. We will take every action necessary to take back our community…”

Blight, as I’m sure you know, is a disease in plants. The Oxford English Dictionary calls blight “a thing that spoils or damages”.

I teach my social studies students that there is a long history of politicians using dehumanizing language to gather votes and support. People of various nationalities, religions, and socio-economic status have been compared to vermin, viruses, demons, and all matter of “blight” to justify their neglect and abuse. While I am not trying to compare you to history’s totalitarian dictators, I am asking you to reconsider your language and understand that nothing good can come of it. I fear that people who already look down on those without housing might use your dehumanizing words to justify all kinds of horror. It is not at all far-fetched to imagine someone feeling compelled to “take back our city” from this “thing that spoils,” as your words suggest, and doing harm to another person. You are a leader. Please do better with your words.

I have understood that you are a person of faith. I apologize if I have misread that and invite you to disregard the next few sentences. I too am a person of faith. What example do the scriptures and traditions contain that you believe would allow you to refer to the most vulnerable people in our community in this way? Could you imagine Jesus referring to the poor as “blight”? Saints Peter or Paul? What about Mother Theresa of Calcutta? Or John Wesley? The Quakers who founded this great city?

“What does the Lord require of you?” Micah 6:8 reads. “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”

Before you were called to be the Mayor of the city of Whittier, were you called to follow the teachings and footsteps of Jesus, the Christ, the brother to the poor, the one who spoke the Beatitudes?

I will continue to love Whittier. I will do what I can to care for and seek solidarity with the poor among us. I will teach my students that language is important, especially in an election year. My students, those with special needs, are at a very high risk to join the community that you have spoken against so viciously. Please reconsider your words, your example, and the call of your faith.

Sincerely,
Jonathan Edwards
Whittier

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