Commissioner Fisher remarks that "we are strongest when we work together." (8/2/21) As a community psychologist with background in disaster response, I would add that the community will be stronger, and families better psychologically supported, by trustworthy, consistent, and accurate safety and recovery guidance delivered in a reassuring manner across multiple sources. During this time of widespread trauma and prolonged psychological distress, we need to look deeper at what fosters the divisiveness in our county commission and interferes with doing what the community needs.
Chairperson Tootie Smith's messaging sews discord by asserting her personal theories at a time when we most need knowledge-informed guidance to help our county move beyond both COVID and viral racism. When anxiety and stress are high, some are less resilient or rely on the defense mechanism of denial to keep from feeling overwhelmed or facing tough realities. Yet, when this reality-denying, disinformation campaign is practiced at a policy-making level by a county official, the commission's job becomes harder.
Consider Smith's leadership position toward vaccinations as "personal choice." Drunk driving laws illustrate how personal choices, when they have public consequences, become public health issues reaching far beyond personal choice. Human rights activist and attorney Qasim Rashid urges us to imagine taking this position (as Chair Smith has with vaccines):
"Driving drunk is my personal choice. Wear a seat belt and drive sober if you're so worried."
COVID deaths have far surpassed those from drunk driving, and it's spiking still. If Chair Smith could see COVID through the lens of public health emergency, the way forward is unequivocal: get vaccinated.
Yet, we're regularly exposed to examples like these by Chair Smith, as she seems to use her public platform to promote her personal views while failing to act for the public's best interest. From advocating large Thanksgiving gatherings last fall to venturing recently into her theories of vaccine development, her confidence surpasses her knowledge. In this time of painful anxiety for some, economic ruin, acute illness, straining hospital resources and death for others, we need more, and better, from our public officials.
Viral racism as well as inconsistent COVID response highlights the Commission leadership's difficulty with unambiguously maintaining an atmosphere of clear-eyed historical accuracy, adherence to scientific knowledge and the values of inclusivity and respect. Why is Commissioner Fischer having to defend herself against attack for her part in challenging another's hateful comments and falsehoods? With appropriate leadership and authority from the Chair, such attacks would be framed, and perhaps stopped, as an attack on the entire Commission, not an individual. The courage and commitment of Commissioner Fischer to not tolerate attempts to silence her are impressive. But again, where is leadership from the Chair?
We need better from Chair Smith: trustworthy public health guidance, not stridently promoted disinformation; well-reasoned, moral authority to halt racist remarks or white supremacist values, not shallow lip-service. Commissioners like Fischer have been left to fend for themselves. Though the details vary, the through-line points to a lack of informed, responsible and sensitive leadership behavior. When people are vulnerable and struggling with intense fears, anxiety, anger, and denial, they need those they've elected to honor the position of trust they've been given and act in service to the overall health of this community.
Zena Polly is a Lake Oswego resident.
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