I have been thinking lately about empathy. For some players on the state and national political stage empathy is a weakness indulged in by “losers.” The opposition is “stupid” or “evil” or “nasty.”
Empathy, the willingness and spirit to put yourself in another’s position and see the world from their perspective is seen by some as an idealistic value having no place in a winner-take-all world. But without empathy we cannot have real community where people work through differences to arrive at solutions that all parties can feel good about knowing that their needs and concerns are valued and considered.
I know Carrboro to be a community that values empathy; I have seen it and felt it many times. I see the empathy of our town expressed by a small local business which has for many years spearheaded efforts to make sure every child in foster care has a great Christmas. I see it every year when our restaurants take part in RSVVP. I see it when our businesses hire people whom other employers might turn away and give people a chance to start a new life. I see it in our neighbors who are committed to TABLE and who volunteer in our many nonprofits. I see it in the passion with which our citizens fight for justice. Empathy in Carrboro is celebrated not scorned.
This Tuesday the Carrboro community will discuss one of the most controversial issues we have grappled with during my 26 years as an alderman. Tuesday’s public hearing is on a proposed zoning text amendment which would allow community kitchens, such as the one operated by the IFC, to be located in downtown Carrboro.
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Emotions are running high among both those who support the use and those who have concerns about the potential impact on their businesses and neighborhoods. Both “sides” have strong valid arguments. I have listened to many arguments both pro and con, many highly emotional.
The one thing I have not heard is that our community does not care about those who are food insecure. Not one person who has contacted me has argued against feeding people who are hungry. For Carrboro the question is not IF we should feed those who are hungry; the question is WHERE. There is no lack of empathy for hungry people or those who serve them in our community.
I would like to ask those who will take part in Tuesday’s public hearing to please have empathy for each other as well. If you come to oppose the text amendment, please have empathy for those who support it. Please offer viable alternatives and recognize that the task of finding a location for the kitchen has been going on for years and has involved hundreds of hours of work by some of our community’s most compassionate people.
If you come to support the amendment, please show empathy for those who oppose it. If you do not have a business or home in our downtown, please consider what would you like to have happen if you sincerely felt that your livelihood or home would be negatively impacted. Please do not dismiss those concerns, they are real. Please do not demonize those who have them. I am interested in hearing from each speaker how our community can meet the needs of people who are hungry and the organizations which serve them.
My experience is that while public hearings are an effective means of hearing people’s concerns they are not the best venue for resolving complex community problems. Public hearings are not the best venue for empathetic problem solving in a way that actively involves all parties. Therefore, after Tuesday’s public hearing I would like for the Board of Aldermen to move forward with a town sponsored series of facilitated meetings of a committee representing those supporting the text change and those who have concerns with how it is currently proposed. I would like this group to work with each other to create a solution that will address the needs and concerns of the entire community. Carrboro can make this happen, taking care of each other is part of who are.
Jacquelyn M. Gist is a member of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.