09 Sep Q&A: Najari Smith: ‘There’s No Time to Waste’ for Small Businesses
Interview, Edward Booth
Name: Najari Smith
Highest education: Some college
Public service: First time running for City Council. Has sat on the Richmond Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Arts and Culture Commission
Richmond Pulse: Why are you running for City Council?
Najari Smith: I’m running for City Council because over the years I’ve been in Richmond, I haven’t seen the changes I’ve felt are necessary. I feel that things that should be prioritized are prioritized less. Not all voices are heard.
RP: What are the two most pressing issues in the city, and what should be done about them?
NS: Public safety and environmentalism, but I also think about affordable housing and rent protection. Affordable housing and rent protection go along with public safety and environmentalism.
For Black folks, people of color, low-income folks who typically don’t live in more affluent areas, there’s issues around public safety. There’s also issues around the environment, the air we breathe. And that word “affordable” — we have to think: Affordable for who? What is affordable? Affordable to what income bracket? We have to think about how we can lower the cost of living. We have to reduce the rent burden. If you don’t have a home, a place to rest your head with a roof, you’re very vulnerable to the environment. The longer you are homeless, it has an effect on your mental health. That creates a public safety issue.
RP: What is the most pressing issue in your district and how should it be addressed?
NS: Community cohesion. I’ve worked to create a connected community across neighborhoods, across ethnicities, across income levels and across ages. We live in a multigenerational society, and those generational bonds are really important. One issue I think of a lot is health care for our seniors. We’ve got to take care of our seniors. How we take care of our seniors is a reflection of how we will be taken care of.
Another issue is youth services. If you don’t give kids something to do, they’ll find it themselves, and that could become a public safety issue.
When I think of healthcare, I think of mental health, physical health, spiritual health, community health. If you’re not addressing all of those things, something’s missing. And it’ll have an effect.
We should find things for seniors to do so they’re a part of the community, so they’re not isolated. I’d like to talk to the Commission on Aging to find solutions for this.
RP: How can the city help residents and businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic and then recover?
NS: The city needs to apply for any federal, regional, statewide resources that we’re eligible for. And really champion that those resources get to businesses that need it, the smallest businesses that need the most support. If we focus on the largest of the small businesses and forget the smallest, that’s a farce.
We need to make sure our city staff are on it. There’s no time to waste. We can’t put a feather in our hat for helping a business with 50 employees when we just let the one that has five employees fall by the wayside. That’s not a win.
It’s our small local businesses that employ many of the residents that live here in Richmond. It’s a lot of family businesses. I don’t want to see those disappear, especially as vulnerable as we are in this moment to gentrification. We should be working with these long-time small businesses to allow them to thrive as our population increases. We want them to be here. We don’t want them to be replaced.
RP: What changes, if any, to policing would best serve the community?
NS: We have to make sure the police are able to focus on what they’re trained for. Police aren’t really trained to deal with mental illness or homelessness. There are people who have gone to school for it; they have experience working with folks that have mental health issues. And homelessness exacerbates the decline of mental health.
The homeless population has been growing in Richmond. That’s something we need a whole department for. [The police] shouldn’t be handling homelessness, shouldn’t be handling mental health. We should also look at the calls that are made to the police, [and] say, “Hey, why are you dealing with this?” We do not ask the football player to play baseball.
We need to reduce the strain on our police force for the health of the department, the health of the officers. If you’re not trained to deal with mental health issues and you’ve got to clear out a homeless encampment, that’s going to make you feel bad. It’s going to destroy your morale. The last thing we need are officers out on patrol with low morale. We need them ready to protect and serve the people. [Smith helped put together a list of police reform demands.]
RP: Why are you the best person to represent your district?
NS: Because of the amount of work I’ve done in Richmond. If I walk through my district, people know me from the work I’ve put in. They know me from the bike shop, the green pac, bike rides. They might have children that have been through our program.
I’m reachable. I’m approachable. I listen. This isn’t the first time I’ve fought for something. I’ve been on the battlefield of the community.