PD Editorial: Missing words undercut theme of Santa Rosa’s unity monument

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

If members of Santa Rosa’s Art in Public Places Committee truly want to promote unity, they need to revisit plans for a showpiece sculpture in Old Courthouse Square.

And if the committee won’t budge, the City Council must step in.

The sculpture — a swirl of illuminated steel by artist Blessing Hancock — “will bring the community together,” Lisa Puente, a member of the committee, explained when the artwork was selected in 2020. Its name, Unum, signifies unity.

And the sculpture still can be a source of unity — if city leaders take the theme to heart.

Hancock has created public artworks for cities across the United States and Canada, and her eye-catching arch for Santa Rosa would be a welcome addition in any community.

Keeping with the unity theme, the 12-foot-tall sculpture is to feature 18 words, including respect, resilience and belonging, inscribed in 17 languages.

The words and languages were selected by the Arts in Public Places Committee.

The panel chose 15 languages based on census data and two Native American languages recommended by an advisory panel.

But the committee rejected public requests to add Hebrew and Japanese — languages associated with two cultures that share deep and enduring roots in this community.

These cultures share another thing — a history of ostracism and exclusion. Leaving their languages off a monument to community and inclusiveness in the heart of Santa Rosa would be one more repudiation.

While we do not ascribe any malicious intent to the committee’s refusal, they clearly gave inadequate consideration to the myriad contributions of Japanese and Jewish Americans — or the dark history of discrimination against them, including here in Sonoma County.

The local Japanese community dates to the 18th century and shares the county’s rich agricultural roots. Yet during World War II, about 750 Sonoma County residents of Japanese descent were confined in desolate prison camps. Some people looked after neighbors’ property until they returned, others offered condemnation based on heritage alone. One 1942 letter in this newspaper said: “In this period of total war, the innocent must suffer with the guilty for the common good …”

Some of those innocents still live here, and local Japanese cultural organizations host annual remembrances of that historic injustice.

Recent attacks in Oakland and other communities remind us all that discrimination and violence targeting Asian Americans has not ended.

Likewise, the Jewish community is deeply entwined with Santa Rosa, through religious and secular organizations, philanthropy and public service. Yet, on Jan. 7, just three days before the art committee met to finalize the unity sculpture, a memorial fountain honoring Holocaust victims was smashed for the second time in as many years.

Including Hebrew and Japanese words on the sculpture would be a clear and unequivocal statement of allyship with neighbors who haven’t always been welcomed here.

Santa Rosa’s Art in Public Places Committee faced a difficult task — winnowing down scores of potential languages to a final list for the sculpture. At first blush, census data may seem like an objective standard. But counting languages presently spoken in local homes doesn’t account for earlier generations of immigrants — including many from Japan — whose descendants speak English. Neither does the metric reflect languages used commonly used in rituals, such as Hebrew.

Art committee members recognized the necessity for a wider focus, wisely accepting an advisory group’s recommendation to include the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo languages on the Unum sculpture. But on a 3-1 vote, they rejected requests to extend the list a little further.

Mayor Chris Rogers, while questioning the wisdom of the decision, put committee members’ feelings ahead of a better outcome. “We want people to feel empowered when they serve on a board or commission,” he said.

That’s a fine goal, but the public reaction to the exclusion of Hebrew and Japanese has been overwhelmingly — and justifiably — negative. Both languages belong on Santa Rosa’s monument to unity. It isn’t too late for the committee to reconsider.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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