Safety, Education and Community Wellness with Mayor Ethan Berkowitz

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz visited UAA’s Student Union Den on Nov. 10 to interact with students and discuss important and relevant community issues. Berkowitz answered questions from participants in the crowd ranging from the efficacy of APD to the possibility of marijuana dispensaries in Anchorage. USUAA Student Government, the UAA College Democrats, and the Alaska Young Republicans teamed up to make this forum available for UAA students.

“USUAA is committed to fostering an environment where individuals, regardless of their political affiliation, can come together and discuss issues important to our community,” said USUAA Vice President Matthieu Ostrander, political science and economics major.

Ostrander talked more about why it’s so important to have community discussions about issues like affordable housing, LGBTQ rights, rates of suicide, mental health in the community.

“Forums like these are not just an opportunity for students to get together with elected officials and ask the questions that are most pertinent to them, but [also] an opportunity for students who might not be aware of those opportunities to just walk on in and be engaged in politics with issues so important like the ones we heard about today. It’s extremely important to provide these opportunities for students so they can continue to become well-informed citizens.”

There were many questions about community safety and well-being — sanding the roads for driving safety, motorcyclist safety, the physical and legal safety of members of the LGBTQ community, community mental health and the well-being of the homeless population were all topics of discussion. Through Berkowitz’s thoughtful and constructive answers, it became clear that the Mayor has Anchorage’s best interests at heart.

Berkowitz stated that when it comes to enforcing safety regulations, a large issue the municipality faces is the small size of the Anchorage Police Department. Berkowitz hopes to help APD take a better approach to hiring in order to increase the size of APD to at least 400 officers. He also said that the goal is to have a police force that is reflective of the community and preserves the integrity of the police force. Berkowitz said that the goal is to prevent people from being reckless by increasing the visibility of police work and traffic laws.

Berkowitz answered a question about the protection of LGBTQ individuals in the community, reaffirming the necessity to protect all people, regardless of sexual preference or orientation.

“I never thought in 2015 I would have to stand up and defend equal rights for all Alaskans. Every school kid pledges allegiance — Liberty and Justice for ALL. The law should treat all people equally. I think if we don’t want to see that [violence and bullying against LGBTQ members] in this community, we have to express what our community values are, we have to say ‘we don’t want to be disappointed by the behavior of people who are trying to instigate fear and prejudice.’ I think we have a responsibility to show others that the passage of equal rights ordinances like the one we have, didn’t change the course of history, it just made it equal for everybody. I think that’s important — if we can dilute the fear, we can win. We’re on the right side of history.”

In terms of community mental health, Berkowitz said that the approach he hopes to take is one in which on-call social workers and police officers work side by side to address issues like drug and alcohol abuse or mental health problems. Berkowitz said that a big step towards minimizing the amount of incarcerated citizens is “recognizing that a lot of the encounters that police have with individuals are not necessarily best handled in the law enforcement context, but frequently better handled through social services.”

Berkowitz’s belief that Anchorage might need to try a rehabilitative rather than punitive approach to mental health is a sign that the Mayor earnestly wants to find a legitimate, long term solution to public health. Berkowitz also discussed the role of individuals in suicide prevention and community wellness.

“The metrics on suicide in this state are horrific. We have some of the mechanisms in place to intercede and reduce the rates of suicide; provide more mental health [around the state]. These are all people. They have families and friends, and I think our strongest course in trying to reduce the incidence of suicide is to be responsible and to watch out for one another. Listen to our friends and neighbors — there are signs that we should be attentive to, and we’re not always going to get them right, but we need to say that we all have a responsibility individually. I don’t know anyone in Alaska who hasn’t been impacted by it.”

When asked a question about how to help alleviate the issues of homelessness in Anchorage, Berkowitz emphasized the importance of humanizing the homeless population and explained the strategy that the state takes to help homeless Alaskans.

“What we’ve done is we’ve taken an approach called Housing First, the primary support of housing, it’s a method that’s been deployed in the Lower 48. If you recognize that individuals who are receiving services off the street cost about $50-60,000 per person per year; if we provide housing vouchers to those individuals who’s costs then decline to $15-20,000 per person, that’s the model we want because it’s been effective in other places. It’s a more humane solution, and more fiscally responsible, and it’s better for Anchorage’s psyche. We need to find housing for those individuals.”

On the topic of general housing, Berkowitz advocated for affordable housing through mixed-use housing.

“What we can do to make sure that housing is more affordable is we need to have mixed housing and neighborhoods that are denser. We need to have buildings higher than one story tall to make use of the land that is available to us. Some of the things that make housing more expensive is that’s it’s 37 percent more expensive to build here in Alaska than in the Lower 48.”

Berkowitz addressed a question about supporting the success of the Anchorage School District by promoting a diversified learning experience for students.

“We need to get more towards an individualized notion of education. The students in this city and state have the ability to compete on the global stage, we just need to make sure they have the tools to do that. The tools to be a successful human being are in three-fold — you need to be able to think critically, to empathize, to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world through someone else’s perspective, and the third thing is we need to do what we can to enhance creativity and to spur intellectual curiosity.”

Mayor Berkowitz had opinions on many relevant issues. Equal rights, affordable housing, effective education and successful social services seem to be in the near future with Berkowitz as mayor.

One of UAA’s Finance majors, Sam Erickson, agreed.

“I think the Mayoral Forum was an excellent event. We had a great turnout; fantastic cooperation between the College Democrats and the Alaska Young Republicans,” said Erickson. “Mayor Berkowitz was asked some interesting questions — some questions with a lot of hard-hitting impacts behind them. I think he answered them quite well for the most part. I’m really glad the university was able to take this opportunity to interact with the community and show that UAA’s students are very concerned and will be leaders moving forward.”

The more political activism and interest among youth, the better. The Mayor himself had very positive feedback about the event and was happy to be there.

“The more civic engagement we have, the more that we can see that we have a healthy community. It’s very encouraging that people showed up and participated, I’m looking forward to coming back,” said Berkowitz.

Written by Kathryn Casello