Hartford — More than 50 residents came to the Selectboard meeting on Wednesday night to watch and participate as town officials continued to wrestle with the inherently thorny problem of an all-white panel trying to advocate effectively for people of color.
After more than four hours of discussion and debate, the Selectboard voted unanimously to create an advisory committee charged with developing recommendations on issues including training and policies on achieving racial equity within the community.
The committee will be comprised of Selectboard members Rebecca White and Simon Dennis, plus five members of the public, who will be chosen by the Selectboard from a pool of interested applicants.
The Selectboard decided to create the committee two weeks ago, originally envisioning that two seats would be filled by School Board members, and that the recommendations would be made to both boards.
But that plan was scuttled last week, when the School Board voted, 3-2, not to participate in the committee, with majority voting members citing a belief that the recommendations would be redundant with existing School Board policies and programs designed to promote equity within the district.
Peter Merrill and Kevin Christie, the two School Board members who voted in favor of participating in the committee, each addressed the room on Wednesday night.
Christie, who represents Hartford in the Vermont House, spoke about his own experiences with discrimination in the Upper Valley, including “walking through a store and knowing you’re being followed because you’re the only black person in the store, having people not put change in your hand ... or just drop it on the counter, or in some case throw it on the counter and in other cases not even look at you and just say, ‘here’s the change.’ ”
Merrill said he was speaking as a resident of Quechee, not as a member of the School Board, and that he welcomed the Selectboard’s creation of the committee.
“My nightmare,” Merrill said, “is that there is a child, growing up in the ghetto or a rural area with no resources, and this person has the potential to grow up and be a person who solves a major problem in this society. ... As long as we discriminate against each other ... we will lose that person.”
Hartford resident John Hall was one of many who criticized the School Board’s decision. He pointed to statements made by Nancy Russell, who was not in attendance. Russell prefaced her vote against participating in the committee by saying, in part, it was a cause she supported as a private citizen, but didn’t feel she should get involved in as a School Board member.
“What I read into Nancy Russell’s statement is a fear, from Nancy Russell, of repercussions from the community that voted her in,” Hall said. “ ... She’s afraid to make that statement, as a School Board member. ... That tells me a lot about how she views this community.”
He said the community needs to make the opposite true.
“What I hope someday is that the members of this board will have a healthy fear, a healthy concern about the way that their expression represents the feelings of this community,” he said.
Rep. Susan Buckholz, D-Quechee, also was critical of the School Board’s decision.
“The next thing I hear is that my School Board doesn’t see the need for this kind of training,” Buckholz said. “I don’t know where I live anymore.”
Olivia Lapierre, who has been active on the issue, said it represented a form of ignorance.
“A majority of the School Board showed that they are lacking an understanding that racism is present in their schools, community, and the state of Vermont,” she said.
Also during the meeting, there were more calls for the resignation of Selectman Mike Morris, who last month forwarded an email including a racist depiction of President Barack Obama, Obama’s family and former Attorney General Eric Holder to a Valley News reporter.
Selectboard Vice Chair Rebecca White publicly called for Morris’ resignation earlier this month.
Morris has apologized, but Lapierre said that Morris’ apology lacked certain key features, including an active plan for how he would rebuild trust with people of color in the community, and that she felt a resignation was “appropriate and necessary.”
Others in the room spoke forcefully in defense of Morris.
“This should not be a dictatorship of shame,” said Morris’ nephew, Luke Eastman. “I’m sorry, but the fact is that this has turned into a witch hunt against Mike Morris.”
Lannie Collins, a Quechee resident who has been a regular at Selectboard meetings in recent years, said he felt the Valley News and other media had “made such a propaganda story of this,” and asked for forgiveness for Morris.
Collins announced that he was mounting a write-in election campaign against White, who is running unopposed to retain her seat in March.
“I don’t think that the way we can move forward is with negative feelings,” he said.
Several others saw Morris’s email as regrettable, but an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about an important topic.
“I hope we seize the opportunity as a community to move forward, which I hope we will,” said Christie. “Hartford’s community has never let us down, and I don’t expect it to in the future.”
Rep. Gabrielle Lucke, D-Hartford, also characterized it as a learning opportunity, and said of Morris, “I assure you nobody has learned more than that gentleman on the end of the table.”
As was noted by many in the room, the path to a community that feels safe for people of all backgrounds is likely to be difficult, and slow.
Even the discussion about the name of the committee showed that there was a variety of thoughtful views from within the small sampling of the people of color in the room. Some residents said the committee should be specific to race, while others thought it should be broadened to say “diversity” or “community,” to include other oppressed groups, such as the LGBT community. One man suggested it simply be named a committee on “human relations.”
The name of the committee eventually was changed to the Committee on Racial Inequality from the Committee on Equity and Diversity.
“The goal was to have something to support people of color specifically,” Lapierre said.
During the meeting, there often seemed to be a communication gap between those who are well-versed in the language of racial justice, and those who are less familiar with the topic.
“I am not a race,” Hall said at one point. “This is not about relating to my race. It’s about relating to me as a human being.”
“It’s important that prior to engaging in these conversations white people check their privilege and assess how it should guide their interactions,” Lapierre said later. “White people should avoid white fragility, whitesplaining and defending their behavior.”
The underlying theme was that everyone in Hartford can benefit by learning more about race-related issues, and has a responsibility to proactively seek out that knowledge.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.