ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — There’s been a lot of talk this week about the relationship between Rochester City Council and the Police Accountability Board.
One of the key players in that back-and-forth is Shani Wilson.
She’s the chair of the PAB, but that’s just one hat she wears. She’s also a physician assistant, a lecturer and a co-director of the Rochester Black Pride Cultural and Arts Festival.
So clearly someone who fits in perfectly with this interview series.
Adam Chodak: You graduate from Eastridge in 1998, you go right to NYC to work with the homeless population, 17 years old. What prompted you to do that?
Shani Wilson: I actually started Bible college around that time and actually had to leave Bible college because I ran out of money and so the school that I was going to, a very kind person paid for me to move down there so that I would actually have a place to live because my home at the time with my mom was full of people and I really didn’t have a place to stay so I remember the day they literally handed me money and said we’ll get you down there and they handed me my stuff and I went down to New York.
SW: I had already been there previously for a ministry opportunity for the school and so we worked in Queens Astoria and we worked all over the city with people who used drugs, sex workers. Teen challenges were big in those days so they had these houses all around New York, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, we would go in there and do stuff and just talk with them and some of these guys just had garbage in the back of their homes so we’d help them with that, but a lot of it was really, it was a place to go and I enjoyed being there so I was able to go back there and I was like I don’t have a place to live so I’ve got to go somewhere so I’m glad it was New York.
AC: What was that experience like?
SW: It was very eye-opening for me. I was very young to be there on my own and I remember my mom the day I didn’t have any money either to keep me in school, which was the reason I left in the first place, and she literally handed me whatever money she had she left. That was probably the last time I saw her for like 2 years and I really enjoyed New York. I felt like an adult. I was doing adult stuff, getting up, going to visit a street, going shopping, being really cool, but ultimately the most experience that I had, I got to really experience the world that a lot of people don’t see in New York City. The people who are homeless there, what being homeless in NYC is like if you’re a woman, if you are female identifying, your likelihood of dying is like 4 or 5 times the average of someone who is not female or female identifying and that is even true up here. So I got to experience that. And then as a clinician, thinking about my days then and seeing all the things that I saw, like working with people who were homeless, sex workers, now kind of the disease, I know oh, well, they had heart failure, they had some sort of sexually transmitted infection that’s kind of materializing on their skin, so it’s kind of interesting to see how your weaves itself together.
Watch the full interview
AC: What did prompt you to become an EMT and get into the physical care in all this?
SW: So actually it was because I became very ill and I have a condition that is incredibly painful and just like a lot of Black and brown people across the country I didn’t have health insurance and I was newly married at the time and we couldn’t afford it. Even before then, when I was coming out of NYC, I worked outside Philadelphia in Lancaster, PA doing some youth outreach for at-risk youth, still didn’t have insurance, but I was in such terrible pain I actually had to come home to my mom’s house and I just decided, well, I’m going to have to do something and eventually when I was better I had known how to navigate the medical system having to go through it so much, like I was having doctors appointments one or two times a week. I had I think by 2006 I had 3 surgeries, all major, and all having to navigate the system alone. So as an EMT, that’s how I kind of broke into the medical world. My family’s background is in medicine. My grandmother was an RN in NYC, that’s how my family ended up there. But for me as an EMT it was kind of… I really loved emergency medicine, I really wanted to get some hands-on experience. And also my grandmother, she worked in Brooklyn in the 50s in the preemie ambulance back then. She graduated from Harlem Hospital and I actually have her plaque on my wall, her degree.
AC: And 15 years after high school you go and become a physician’s assistant. That’s a big step, you’ve got to be approaching 30 years old, changed your career…
SW: I didn’t have much of a direction except that I knew I wanted to do medicine, but I wasn’t sure how that was going to happen. EMS was really amazing, I met some really amazing people and got to see some really amazing things, but I also got to work in the hospital as an emergency technician, but it was really a big step to apply and say, OK, I can do this. The reason I was able to get the application forward is because one of the PAs that actually performed surgery on me, that was an emergency surgery that I needed, I was like, what’s a PA and I was like I don’t know what that is, tell me more about it so she actually arranged for me to shadow her now husband at the time. He’s a surgery PA here in Rochester and that’s how I decided I wanted to be a PA.
AC: Where does that care come from?
SW: I think there’s an urgency that’s driving me and has been driving me for many years to help people navigate the health care system as a young Black woman, having had to coach other Black women, knowing that the system is not meant to work for you, it was not built for you and having to try to get people through that world and knowing that I have my knowledge and experience that I can bring to the table, also my medical experience and expertise that can change some lives, but ultimately this is a situation where Black and brown people are so disproportionately affected by chronic illnesses, disease, mental health, there just isn’t enough resources so that’s how how I became a physician’s assistant and transitioned into what I’m doing now.
AC: But that care was seen before that illness…
SW: I guess it’s just natural. My grandmother was a nurse for many years, my aunt as been an HIV nurse since the 80s and she still practices in HIV. My mom is a mental health professional so I would say it’s instinctive. I think my grandmother, though, is the biggest influence on my family. She’s since passed away, but in the 1930s. She was very, very smart and graduated the valedictorian of her class and she told her parents she was going to move away, she wanted to go to school and they disowned her right then and there and they’re like, sorry, no, you either stay here or don’t come back and she chose to leave and moved to NYC. And so that I think, it’s one thing to care about people, but to put care in action is another thing. Ultimately, what ended up happening is she had to come back and care for my great-grandmother who had tuberculosis and ended up saving her life.
AC: How did you end up transitioning from that very direct help to what could be considered to be indirect help through the PAB?
SW: I don’t see it has indirect help. I see it as direct because like all of the people who serve on the board, we bring in a knowledge and expertise and experience to what we do now on the PAB. That’s not all I do in the community, though. And so I just think of it as an extension of what I do, an extension of what I can bring and I would say the other board members would say the same thing.
AC: Instead of helping face to face, you’re helping at another level…
SW: I think it’s amazing to have members with on-the-ground experience that they can actually bring it to the actual government structure. And that’s what government should be. It’s an experiment. How do we get community members to invest and make it work for community members. That’s why the PAB exists, that’s why it took so long to get it passed and that’s why it will continue, honestly, because of the community should decide what the actual future of Rochester should look like and that future has to include police re-imaging police reform or just making sure people are held accountable in the Rochester Police Department.
AC: You take this leadership role and that main power gets stripped away which is to discipline officers if some type of misconduct is found. Has it been frustrating to be part of this with that component missing?
SW: I will say at first it was frustrating. I didn’t ever join the Alliance. I joined the Alliance later on and was asked to apply for the position and I felt very sad for those that had to work so hard, and remember how these things are passed, it takes a little bit of moving forward, inch by inch, and a lot of people really sacrificed to make that happen. And I think at first we were disheartened, but then when I saw that there was a lot that needed to happen and a lot we could do with what we have now. The PAB was powerful to begin with and it doesn’t make us less powerful. I think discipline just adds on to another layer of accountability, that’s what I think.
AC: I hear some on the law enforcement side is that those with the PAB are anti-cop. What’s your response?
SW: We have a really great group of board members, a lot of them that are not so keen on police and then there are a lot that are. But I think at the end of the day I think there’s a lot of frustration in the community at large, they don’t want to be afraid of the police, they want to make sure that when they call the police they’ll respond within a certain amount of time, they want to make sure they’re not being threatened or harassed or their family isn’t being threatened or harassed. And those that are leaning more towards pro-police, they’ll say we want officers to have access to mental health training for people in the community. You have to know the community in which you’re living. Like me as a clinician, I’ve worked in inner-city medicine for almost 9 years and I work in that world, so I have a pretty good sense of what it’s like. I think that a lot of it seems adversarial to a lot of people. Like I just to police you instead of know you and I think that’s where, I think pro-police what to see there’s mental health treatment, mental health training. They want to see there’s in-depth training about Rochester and also for police themselves to make sure they have access. Post-traumatic stress and stress disorders, they are insidious. One day, you’re sitting on a job and I always talk about the red sweater. You see someone with the red sweater on, two days ago you had a domestic violence victim with a red sweater then you see your daughter wearing that sweater and you get triggered and they don’t understand why, that’s common for traumatic stress. That stuff needs to be addressed because that will affect how you deal with me, how you deal with the public, especially if you’re burned out, you’re stressed out and you’re also traumatized.
AC: It’s interesting how your perspective on a lot of this is colored by your past experience with health…
SW: Also as clinician. I understand what it’s like to be burned out. And I didn’t even add on the layer of COVID. There’s an intersection of medicine in policing. There are articles on cops and stress, but also there’s also articles medicine and stress and doctors, people killing themselves because they’re stressed out, that was happening before COVID. In medicine, we have depression scale. Is there a depression scale for policing here?
AC: Now that you’ve been in the weeds so to speak are you more or less optimistic?
SW: I think police-community relations have a long way to go. It’s multi-layered. If you’re a stakeholder in this town, you get a certain amount of engagement and that’s not just with policing. If you’re not of influence and just in the street I don’t think you’ll get the same interaction or I would say just a consistent interaction. I think that has to be consistent all the way down for people who don’t have that influence. Someone overdosed the other day near where I live and I had a great experience with the officer who responded. And I was just walking and I usually have Narcan on me at all times, but I was just going for a walk and took a different bag. That lady ended up living, but the interaction with the officer was really great.
AC: But you’re asking for consistency…
SW: Yes, and I think that’s what the community is asking for. If you’re talking about community relations, you’re traumatizing the public by how you’re interacting with them.