Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

The D.C. Council is at a tipping point. In a time of elevated racial and economic tensions, councilmembers are searching for a constructive way forward. They’re looking to prepare for future conflicts. But they’re stumbling along the way.

What was supposed to be a coming together of councilmembers and local faith leaders earlier this month devolved into an uneasy—and ultimately unresolved—exchange.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson convened the breakfast meeting on Oct. 9 in order to establish a rapport between the Council and religious communities. Leaders from Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist congregations, among others, attended. 

The meeting came on the heels of Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White’s March comment that the Rothschilds, a Jewish family, are “controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities.” A reckoning for White and the Council as a whole has followed.

Questions of race and equity have also become a part of the at-large race between incumbent Elissa Silverman and her challenger, Dionne Reeder. And nationally, voices supporting white supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiment have grown louder under President Donald Trump.

“There will be other instances, for sure, in the future,” Mendelson says of issues involving racial and religious discrimination generally. “Not having a relationship with [local religious leaders] makes it more difficult for the Council to work with them when the problem emerges, whether it’s immigration, racism, anti-Semitism, or on pieces of legislation.”

The faith leaders, in other words, were to provide something of a moral compass as the Council is facing uncomfortable questions about how it should approach divisive issues of race and religion, and who has the authority to guide them.

Will they conquer these issues, or will time heal the wounds until they’re opened again?

Over hot food, fruit, and coffee at the Wilson Building, the conversation swirled from issues around anti-Semitism to racism, Mendelson recalls.

Others in attendance most clearly remember the tensions between At-large Councilmember Silverman, who is Jewish, and Rev. Willie Wilson, of D.C.’s Union Temple Baptist Church, who is aligned with controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Farrakhan has a history of making anti-gay and anti-Semitic comments. Last week, he compared Jewish people to “termites” at a gathering in Detroit. Facebook removed a clip of those statements for violating its rules on hate speech; Twitter has so far refused to take action. In the past, Farrakhan has preached at Wilson’s church, and earlier this year, Silverman called for the Council to condemn Farrakhan’s message and says he should not be welcome in D.C.

During the breakfast, Silverman recalls that Wilson questioned why the Council was focused on anti-Semitism rather than “anti-blackism” and says he implied that she is not welcome at Union Temple. Others in attendance describe the exchange as tense and uncomfortable. 

Union Temple is located in Ward 8, where the Nation of Islam has historical roots and has provided support for the area ranging from public safety to community service to instilling a sense of civic pride, The Washington Post has reported.

Wilson declined an interview with City Paper, but writes in an email that “everyone is welcome to attend Union Temple, and over the years, we have welcomed visitors of every ethnicity and religion through our doors, and will continue to do so.”

As Silverman left the breakfast meeting, she says that Wilson approached her. 

“We have to talk about this,” she recalls him saying.

“I told him, ‘I’m happy to do it. You know how to get in touch with me.’”

The tension between Silverman and Wilson has raised concerns for Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, the other Jewish councilmember, over whether to continue meeting with faith leaders and whether a governmental body is the appropriate vehicle for this discussion.

“If we’re really trying to understand one another enough to take action on issues that impact each other, then it’s not going to [get done with] breakfast and speeches,” she says. “Anti-Semitism and racism have existed for so much longer than you and I have been alive. The root causes of both are hatred and ignorance and you don’t solve those by having meetings in a government office building.”

Reeder, a local business owner who is challenging Silverman for her at-large seat on the Council, says it’s important for councilmembers to continue these difficult conversations with faith leaders.

“Whatever that meeting was, keep having them,” she says, adding that Wilson is someone she holds dear and who she at times has turned to for advice.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to be an easy conversation to have,” Reeder says. “I’ve heard a lot of things that are uncomfortable—mean things. But that’s the reality when you decide to put yourself on front street.”

Given the contentious nature of the recent meeting, Silverman, for her part, suggests that the faith leaders are not best equipped to guide the Council across these fault lines.

“I think they’re experts in their faiths and not necessarily in racial equity and social justice,” she says. “I just couldn’t take Willie Wilson being this moral authority anymore.”

Instead, Silverman suggests bringing in trained experts to facilitate discussions and trainings on implicit bias and institutional racism. She points to the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), which is doing similar work around the country.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie has been working with GARE since last year when he introduced a resolution encouraging D.C.’s elected officials to consider racial and economic equity in policy decisions. 

Next year, he says, he’ll push for the development of a racial equity toolkit that will evaluate pieces of legislation to ensure they don’t disproportionately impact certain groups of people.

“When we truly move toward analyzing our work as a government through a lens of racial equity, social justice, and economic inclusion, people will benefit to a greater extent than they are today,” McDuffie says. “And they will see resources extending to the farthest reaches of the city more routinely.”

A similar effort is already underway in Takoma Park, Maryland.

“We’re looking at D.C., and some people say there’s a lot of displacement there,” says Takoma Park councilmember Jarrett Smith, who is leading the effort in the city just across the D.C. line. “I do not want to displace people, so how do I, as a councilmember, put policies in place to make sure that doesn’t happen? And that’s what we hope the research will bring. Education can go a long way.”

Mendelson says he anticipates scheduling another meeting between faith leaders and the Council in the next several months. He says part of the role of elected officials is to act as moral leaders when faced with difficult discussions.

“Sometimes it’s better to have the person who is making the objectionable comments in the room, to confront him or her as opposed to excluding people,” he says.