By Shira Goodman
Public service comes in many forms. There are the high profile elected positions that come with prestige and fame, and there are the more local elective positions that bring lots of work and meaningful actions, but few perks.
And then there are the first responders, whose names are usually unknown, even as we honor them as front line heroes. All of these positions come with their own rewards. And they each come with a special responsibility. When one becomes a public servant, he or she speaks with a different power and authority, and their words carry special weight.
It seems that many public servants have forgotten this recently and need a refresher.
Every week, it seems, there’s a new story of a school board member, township official, police officer, or other public servant who has publicly said or posted something hateful, biased or discriminatory.
I don’t mean statements about controversial political topics. I mean a display that lays bare feelings and attitudes that undermine the speaker’s ability to maintain trust and therefore continue to serve in their position. The root problem may be bigotry, ignorance, indifference or hatred; all of those are unacceptable in those who seek to lead, to represent, to serve.
Often, these incidents are followed by apologies, promises to do better, and sometimes serious consequences – including discipline, resignation, or removal from one’s position.
These steps are important, but we’ve become too used to the ritual of the public official apologizing, claiming they didn’t know how their words would be taken, they didn’t understand, they’ll do better. Or, for those who are unapologetic, their peers denounce them and where procedures allow, they may lose their positions of power. But these scenes are playing out too often.
We deserve better. Those who wish to serve owe it to the communities and individuals they serve. Public service is a trust.
Public servants represent and speak for the whole community. If they harbor bias or hatred towards segments of that community, or if they have not done the work to truly understand the harm that their words can cause, then they shouldn’t be asking for the vote of confidence and trust that the position demands.
As someone who has run for office, I understand the magnitude of asking someone to trust you enough to vote for you.
While running, I met people from across my county, of different races, economic standings, religions, ages, sexual orientations and gender identities. What I already knew from my prior work and experiences was confirmed: we are all more alike than we are different, but our differences inform the way we experience the world.
Public officials must work to better the lives of everyone within their communities, not only those who look and believe and love the way they do
And as someone who has lost an election, I understand that elected officials work for the whole community, not just the people who voted for them.
Your state representative and senator, congressional representative and U.S. Senator, your township commissioners and your school board members – they all work for you, whether you voted for them or not.
That is also true of police officers and firefighters, and all the people your tax dollars pay. They work for the community. If those folks do not realize that when they are seeking those positions, they better get the hang of it real quick. Because one can’t be a public servant and serve only a part of the public.
Words matter. And the words of a public servant matter more than the words of others. They have the power to send messages of support or exclusion, of unity or division.
This is indeed an additional burden, but it is part of the contract they agreed to when they sought to serve. Like all of us, public servants have the right to continue learning, to confront their biases and to become aware of how those biases have impacted their work.
They do not have the right to express those biases unapologetically and then seek forgiveness only when the uproar comes.
To be clear, we believe that people deserve second chances and the opportunity to learn, grow and do better. But more valuable than a second chance is an investment in learning and work on the front end that will help to avoid those errors that do real harm to the people for whom public servants work.
Pennsylvanians deserve nothing less from our public servants. Please stop disappointing us.
Shira Goodman is the regional director of the Philadelphia Region of the Anti-Defamation League. Follow them on the web at www.philadelphia.adl.org.