Hartford Selectboard Encourages Racial Inequality Committee to Continue Work

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2017 9:21:38 AM
Modified: 11/22/2017 11:25:09 AM

Hartford — The Selectboard voted unanimously to allow the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality to recommend replacements for three committee members who resigned last week.

Town Manager Leo Pullar said he would advertise the open seats and forward applications to the committee’s seven remaining members.

Two of the three committee members who resigned — Olivia LaPierre and Wayne Miller — cited a lack of support from the Selectboard and the Hartford School Board as part of the reason for their resignation.

Selectboard members sought to reassure the public on Tuesday night that they valued the committee and its work.

“The last thing I wanted and the last thing we want is to not support that committee. We do,” Selectboard Chairman Dick Grassi said. He added, a moment later, “I apologize to the committee for any information that they’ve gotten that I do not think reflects the opinions or the intentions of this board.”

The Selectboard and School Board jointly created the committee in March, and seated members in April to carry out a formal charge that includes directions to “decide upon recommendations to the Selectboard and School Board regarding measures that will address and challenge instances of racism,” and to “decide on recommendations to the Selectboard and School Board regarding other actions that Hartford can take to respond to incidents of racism.”

The committee was formed after a Selectboard member forwarded an email with a racist cartoon in it, which prompted people of color in the community to tell the Selectboard that they had experienced different forms of racism within Hartford, and that they felt unsafe.

Over the past month, four Selectboard members expressed varying levels of offense after LaPierre said that “racialized white people are socialized to be racist,” which other committee members have said referred to the implicit and unconscious bias that is embedded within the societal power structure, and that leads to a variety of disadvantageous outcomes for people of color, such as increased traffic stops and more challenges in finding employment or housing.

When LaPierre was pressed to explain her comment by committee member Dan Hillard — who also resigned last week — and others who found it to be offensive, she declined.

Members of the committee and the public have said the School Board and Selectboard effectively obstructed the committee’s work by appointing members who lacked expertise in racial justice issues, because the committee was continuously bogged down in the work of educating its own members about basic terms such as “implicit bias” or “white supremacy.”

Tuesday night’s discussion by Selectboard members showed an apparent conflict between two values — the long-held democratic tradition that allows the aggressive questioning of public officials, and the need to protect vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society from aggression.

Selectboard member Rebecca White, who also sits on the committee, said the Selectboard had subjected the committee to extra scrutiny and that it was being forced to work under a “magnifying lens.”

“It’s whether we’re open to creating a committee that can be bold, that respects the experience of different members and that doesn’t need to be continually debated among Selectboard members,” she said.

Grassi said that the Selectboard was not meddling in the inner workings of the committee, and that the questions raised were not intended to undermine its work.

“There were questions about deviating off the charge. But again, the committee worked its way back to where it was. There was concern from the members of this board about statements the chair made,” Grassi said. “I said we’ll let them work through it. If they have an issue, let’s see how they work through this.”

Selectboard member Simon Dennis, who also sits on the committee, said that grappling with issues of racial inequality has been more difficult than he imagined it would be when the committee was formed.

“There are issues of what it feels like to be a person of color in this community, and also feelings of what it’s like to be a white person responding to that. It turns out, on both sides, there’s strong feelings,” he said, characterizing the discomfort of the discussion as a sign of growing pains.

“If we are going through growing pains, then we need to celebrate that, because we’re not doing what a lot of other communities are, which is ignoring it.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-32 11.

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