Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Working Overtime: Harrisburg’s two new City Council members pledge visibility, engagement within the community

Jocelyn Rawls

Education runs in Jocelyn Rawls’ blood.

Her dad was a teacher in the Harrisburg School District for 35 years, and her mom served as a nurse in the district. Rawls grew up to become a teacher herself, working in New York City before coming to Ben Franklin Elementary School in Harrisburg. For the past six years, she has worked for Central Dauphin School District as a third-grade teacher.

It’s been a challenging couple of years for Rawls, as it has been for all teachers during the pandemic. But she has learned a lot, she said, such as how to be more tech savvy in the classroom and how to promote health and hygiene. But there’s also been plenty of repeatedly reminding kids to pull their masks over their noses.

At home, there are more kids. She and her partner have five children in the blended family of seven. Even after the school bell rings and her workday finishes, Rawls is often back in a school gym watching her children’s sports games.

This year, she heaped another large serving onto her already full plate and took a seat on Harrisburg City Council.

The 2021 election season in Harrisburg was one full of eager candidates. In the primary election, 13 hopefuls ran for four seats on council. In the end, two incumbent council members, Shamaine Daniels and Ausha Green, were re-elected and two newcomers, Rawls and Ralph Rodriguez, won seats for the first time.

Rawls and Rodriguez may be new to council, but they’re not new faces in the community. Both have been active in caring for and educating the Harrisburg area for years. Recently, as they took their seats on the council dais, they shared how they plan to continue those efforts.


Ralph Rodriguez

Fight or Flight

What Rawls hopes to accomplish on council isn’t too different from what she does as a teacher. Her goal is to promote communication and education between the city and its residents.

Rodriguez also draws on his years of experience working in the community. Like Rawls, Rodriguez is already juggling a lot of responsibilities, between running a nonprofit and raising five kids with his wife Cierra Ross. But this is his home, his passion.

After moving to Harrisburg in the mid-1990s, Rodriguez lived on Chestnut Street in Allison Hill and attended Harrisburg High School-John Harris Campus.

“When I think about the good old days, that’s what I reference,” he said. “I just remember neighbors coming by, and it really was, ‘Hey does your mom have sugar upstairs?’ ‘Can I borrow a cigarette?’ It was so much love.”

He loved the sense of community he felt—the neighbors, the cookouts.

But life wasn’t always carefree for Rodriguez who, at 3 years old, lost his father to drug use. At age 9, he entered a juvenile placement facility, due to neglect, he said, and remained in the system until he was 17. Two weeks before Rodriguez’s high school graduation, his mother died.

These experiences drove him to care for others in similar situations.

“I understand how it feels to be left and neglected,” he said.

About a decade ago, Rodriguez, a certified life coach and intervention prevention specialist, started All You Can Inc., an organization that provides emergency services to at-risk families in central Pennsylvania.

Over the years, he’s hosted gun safety courses, holiday toy drives, school supply drives and community Thanksgiving dinners. All You Can also organized a protest after the killing of George Floyd and helped distribute a quarter-of-a-million pounds of food to families in need during the pandemic.

In a lot of ways, moving into a political position with City Council was a natural next step for Rodriguez, although he’s never considered himself a politician. He prefers “public servant” or “advocate.”

“When I have 200 to 300 people looking at me like—‘Ralph, what are we going to do? What’s the plan?’—it’s either fight or flight, and I’ve never been good at running,” he said.


Fresh Eyes

Last year, during her campaign, Rawls would get off of work then begin to walk the neighborhoods, knocking on doors, talking to residents. She introduced herself, listened to questions and shared her vision for Harrisburg. These were long days, but Rawls was determined to make herself visible in the community, rather than using volunteers.

“I’m going to be in the seat, so why should I have other people doing the work for me?” she said.

On council, Rawls now chairs the Parks, Recreation and Enrichment Committee, a perfect assignment for someone who wants to enhance youth programming in Harrisburg. Other goals include updating infrastructure and improving communication within the city. In the process, she wants to help educate the public on the workings of the local government, which she considers to be key to her work, as well.

Rawls admitted that she didn’t always know much about the way city government functioned. As a city resident, she often didn’t know what to do or who to call when she had a question. Her goal now is to help people who also feel that way, she said.

Once Rawls started learning about the importance of participating in local government, she had to be a part of it.

“Sitting on city council, I have a larger voice,” she said. “I know what the city can be. It has so much potential, but it needs warriors.”

Rodriguez never imagined that he would be one of these “warriors,” making big decisions on behalf of the public.

“As a teenager, I used to sit at my window and wonder where I’d be someday,” he said.

Rodriguez now is confident that he’s in the right place, bringing “fresh eyes” and a “new perspective” to council.

Some of his priorities overlap with those of Rawls—better communication with constituents and additional educational opportunities for kids. Others include focusing on recruitment and retention efforts within the police and fire bureaus and promoting transparency within city government, things that fall under his purview as chair of the public safety committee. However, Rodriguez said that his first year on council will include a lot of time learning.

He’s also dedicated to being visible and present in the community and noted that walking the streets of Harrisburg and talking to residents shouldn’t stop after election season.

“I need to show these citizens that there is someone working overtime for them,” he said. “Our work doesn’t stop in the council chambers.”

Both Rawls and Rodriguez eagerly shared what they see as the most beautiful parts and aspects of the city—the Susquehanna riverfront, the state Capitol complex, Italian Lake and the diverse and delicious restaurants. They already love their city, but envision it becoming even greater.

“I’m really hopeful for the future of Harrisburg,” Rodriguez said. “I would love to see Harrisburg come back to the ‘Miss Jones, do you have any rice I can borrow?’ My hope is that we have the right council and administration that is homegrown, from the area, and willing to put in the overtime.”


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