Since last summer, groups in Essex – including the selectboard and police department – have been collaborating to discuss and fight racism in the community.
“The Town of Essex is proud to announce that it is working with Creative Discourse to build the capacity of leaders in the Essex Police Department and Essex Municipality to engage with the community in authentic conversations about racism and social justice, and to lay the foundation for changes in attitudes, practices, and policies so Essex can become a more welcoming, inclusive, anti-racist community where all residents can thrive,” read a July statement signed by Unified Manager Evan Teich and Deputy Manager Greg Duggan.
Creative Discourse tries to help communities and organizations change through leadership coaching, workshops and trainings, community dialogue and problem solving, and organizational change processes. Founder Susan McCormack joined a recent meeting with the Town Selectboard and Village of Essex Junction Board of Trustees to provide an update on what work has been done so far and next steps.
McCormack shared an excerpt from a different July statement signed by Teich, Duggan, Essex Police Chief Ron Hoague, and selectboard members Elaine Haney and Vince Franco which read in part, “We hear you saying our responses to racial justice are inadequate. We hear you telling us that we need to improve what we do. We know we have a lot of work to do. We need to listen to you now, and in the long-term.”
She went on to say that there were three workshops held with municipal leaders and that each member of the police department had participated in one of three full-day trainings that aimed to build a shared understanding of the history of racial injustice in the country and implicit bias. Following that training, McCormack and Creative Discourse colleague Tabitha Moore moved to engaging with the community.
An initial survey was conducted which asked the public how it wanted to be heard about its feelings and opinions. McCormack said through the 602 responses that people reported wanting listening sessions and another survey for that communication.
Five two-hour listening sessions were subsequently held including an affinity group for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and another for the Nepali community. These groups, McCormack said, were an opportunity for people who hold similar identities to have open and honest conversations. There were 58 people who attended the listening sessions while a public safety survey yielded over 200 responses.
That survey tried to understand how people envision public safety, what people’s experiences with public safety and policing have been, and how people want to make Essex a safer place to live and work. Of those who filled out the survey, McCormack said 36 identified as BIPOC, 145 identified as white, and 33 chose not to answer.
One theme expressed throughout the survey was noted: that Essex is fine and that talking about racism is the problem. But McCormack said that was “not surprising, because this is a theme that we could hear anywhere in the country.”
She countered that theme, however, saying, “We really need to be brave and take a look at our history and how it’s impacted where we’re at today. Tabitha and I both feel that only by taking that look and having the courage to see it, and discuss it, and acknowledge it can we really make progress – and just become the community that we hope we all can be.”
McCormack shared data gathered through the surveys and summarized it by saying people had very different experiences in Essex based on the identification they hold. She also noted that it was heard through the listening sessions that people’s experiences or observations of racism in town were not limited to policing but also included education, municipal government, and other public spaces.
Through the differing experiences and responses, McCormack said she and Moore were able to find a shared vision for safety – listing six things that everyone who participated said as mattering:
- Everyone feels comfortable and safe from physical and emotional harm and can travel freely and without worry to all parts of the community.
- There is a strong sense of community and belonging, and public safety is seen as a collective responsibility.
- There is a low crime rate and adequate and responsive police, fire, and rescue services.
- There is equitable access to resources, protection, and quality of life, and people’s basic needs are met.
- People are not discriminated against or singled out regardless of identity, position, background, or views.
- Sidewalks and roads are safe and well maintained, and there is adequate lighting.
McCormack said four priorities emerged for the town’s leaders through the work being done:
- Ensure community leadership is representative of the population.
- Consider a range of strategies to improve policing, such as citizen oversight, data collection, training, and resource reallocation.
- Build community commitment to equity, inclusion, and racial justice through ongoing community conversations, education, and training.
- Improve the education system.
According to McCormack, she’s observed through the process so far that there is an increased understanding across municipal leadership and the police department about issues related to racism, diversity, and equity. She said participants reported after the listening sessions that they have an increased confidence that those issues will be addressed.
McCormack also said that the listening sessions have led to communication and a support channel for BIPOC residents which may not have existed in the same way before.
“This conversation about racial equity across departments felt to us like a new conversation that hasn’t quite happened,” she said. “And it felt to us that we were starting to break down some silos, and – as we know – trying to make progress on racial justice is complex. And it really helps to have the whole community working together.”
McCormack noted that new leadership is emerging through the efforts. She said that participants from the BIPOC affinity listening session are now working with the Essex Westford School District and advising the board on an equity policy being drafted for the district, and another was recently appointed to the Essex Economic Development Commission after learning of the opportunity through a listening session.
Additionally, the Essex Safety, Policing and Racial Justice Task Force was formed after the listening sessions and survey – being made up of participants from those forums, town staff and elected officials, and representatives from the police department, school district, and Community Justice Center.
“It’s been a very interesting and powerful experience to get to know a group of people that are interested and passionate about this subject,” said Raj Chawla who’s on the task force as a representative for the Village Trustees. “And I think we have a lot of work to do, but I feel very confident that the community is in a position to really start engaging with these topics. I’m very happy that they identified getting some diversity in our leadership and our representation on various boards. That means a lot to me, and I think it will ultimately mean a lot to the rest of the community.”
McCormack said the Committee on Equity for Essex will continue meeting weekly and that the task force is working on establishing a solid foundation for the work ahead – getting clear on a vision and its role and building relationships.
“Tabitha and I believe this is especially important when we’re doing this work,” she said. “It can get really hard and messy, especially when we start to think about creating changes, and people have very different ideas about what needs to happen. So being able to have a solid foundation is going to be very important.”
There are two priorities the task force wants to address during its four meetings over the next several months, McCormack said: policing – such as citizen oversight, data collection, training, and resource allocation – and building representative community leadership.
“I really appreciate the work that has been done to this point to bring us to where we are,” said Trustees President Andrew Brown, “and also to start what I hope is just the beginning of the foundation and the beginning of a much longer process – and that this does not turn into any kind of a report which gets put on the shelf to collect dust and we check a box and say, ‘All right; we’ve done that step.’ We can’t change a culture, we can’t change the history and the path that we’re on by a one-and-done process.”