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Brattleboro board moves to address diversity

Audience members hail progress, seek further details and accountability

To read Town Manager Peter B. Elwell’s report and other documents related to “Promoting Diversity in Our Community,” visit

BRATTLEBORO—After months of research, Town Manager Peter B. Elwell presented Selectboard members with his report on increasing diversity in town government and the community.

At the Sept. 19 regular Selectboard meeting, Board members unanimously voted to approve Elwell’s recommendations for actions to support diversity, inclusion, and equity in Brattleboro.

Before they voted, Elwell gave a brief history of how the issue — the lack of racial diversity in municipal staff — came to town officials’ attention and the research he conducted to satisfy the Board’s request that he come up with recommendations.

It began in February at the Brattleboro Selectboard Candidates’ Forum, when Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, posed the first question to those seeking election: “To what do you attribute the town’s inability to recruit, hire — let alone retain — employees of color, and what will you do to change that?"

Beginning in early May, Elwell and Selectboard members began discussing the subject, including gathering public comment, at three Board meetings.

They determined they didn’t have all the answers, and would need to reach out to the community to learn ways to create a more inclusive place of employment.

“I learned there was already a lot of work going on in the community, not just on racial equity, but on social equity, more broadly,” Elwell told Board members at the Sept. 19 meeting.

“Over the last few months, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with a lot of people,” Elwell said. In his report, he lists nine individuals, and six community groups incorporating 35 additional people, whom Elwell spoke with “on multiple occasions,” he said. Many of these people and groups are working directly toward racial and social justice. In addition, Elwell said he had “informal communications” with many others in the community.

“That was how I was trying to make sure I understood what was already happening in the community and who was doing it, and seeing what I could learn from that,” Elwell said.

Sustained communication

What he learned, he said, is that the most important thing “we as town government [and] community leaders can do [...] goes beyond any particular bullet-pointed action.” Instead, all parties must “stay involved [and] stay in communication with the people who are devoting themselves to the work. There’s a lot each of us can learn and contribute,” he said.

Elwell said he ended the various conversations with community members and leaders with a question: What do you think town government should do?

“Consistently, in all the different settings in which I had these meetings,” Elwell said he heard that “if town government shows that we really are interested and really [...] want the community to be more inclusive and equitable, [and] we’re going to work towards that ourselves [...] that will make a bigger difference than any one particular action or idea."

In Elwell’s report to the Selectboard, he lists some conclusions:

“Doing the work” means different things to different people, and “disagreement is okay,” Elwell said, noting that the definition of the work matters less than the communication it inspires.

Town officials and other leaders need to be visible during these conversations, because “we do have authority,” said Elwell, “but we don’t have all the answers."

Local government must represent and work for all marginalized people in the community.

Promoting diversity is only the beginning. What must come next, Elwell said, is inclusion and equity, where “people feel welcome and safe, and are in fact welcome and safe."

Success is defined not by “checking the box” in the short-term, but by continuing the work and achieving equity in the long-term.

Elwell noted the town is “more diverse right now,” pointing out that “20 percent of the students enrolled in our public schools are people of color. It’s demographically and statistically real.” Anecdotally, Elwell said in his report, the streets of Brattleboro now present more diversity than they did when he was a child here in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The issue isn’t about promoting diversity,” Elwell said, because “it’s already here.” What needs to happen in municipal government and the greater community is “sustaining and increasing inclusion and equity."

’Progressive spirit’

What gives Elwell hope, he said, is Brattleboro’s history of resiliency and its “progressive spirit,” which began in the 1800s and got a boost in the 1960s when “an influx of people” came to the area and pushed the political needle to the left.

“This gives me good reason to believe we can engage in this together and be proud of what we accomplish,” he told Selectboard members.

One of Elwell’s recommendations that the Board already approved and enacted includes reaching further out into the community to recruit new staff.

“Seventeen people signed up for the town’s Employee Recruitment Outreach Network,” Elwell said. Town officials now send those people job listings for municipal positions, and they send them to their friends and colleagues.

“Frankly, I hope we get a lot more than 17,” said Elwell, and encouraged interested parties to contact his office to get on the list.

Town officials also changed the message included on all advertisements for job openings.

Instead of “just referencing the Town as an ‘Equal Opportunity Employer,’” Elwell said, it now says, “The Town of Brattleboro is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we strongly encourage people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ applicants, and people from other underrepresented groups to apply, recognizing and respecting that diverse perspectives and experiences are valuable to our team and essential to our public service.”

Elwell’s report calls for additional municipal actions, including staff training on conscious and unconscious bias and creating a welcoming and inclusive workplace, enhanced recruitment, and hiring a human resources professional to make sure these actions happen.

He also called for more participation from town officials in supporting community-wide equity, including attending and promoting public events.

Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor thanked Elwell for his work, and called his report “a good work product with good recommendations.” Board member John Allen said to Elwell, “kudos.”

Gratitude and optimism

Members of the audience — some of whom worked with Elwell during his research — offered comments on his report. Most expressed gratitude and optimism, but asked for more concrete action steps.

Phoebe Gooding and Dale Joy both reminded town officials that hiring marginalized people isn’t enough.

“That’s not where the work ends,” said Gooding — the town must support them and create a positive work environment, too.

Joy, who grew up in Brattleboro, and identifies as white, black, and Native American, said, “Peter’s recommendations are something I have waited many years to see. I thank you. This is a good step forward."

Town officials “[need] not have the answers, but [need] to move resources to make way for those who do have answers,” said Alex Fischer, who noted there are many in the state who can do that.

“You have a lot of power,” Fischer said, “and that power can be gifted to others to move forward."

Shela Linton thanked Elwell and Selectboard members for listening to the community. “It’s wonderful to have a process where voices are heard,” she said, but she wants more details from town officials, including point-people for feedback.

“Who exactly is accountable?” Linton asked.

Reed, whose question back in February started this discussion, called Elwell’s report “a good framework.”

“I think you’ve got a great start,” said Reed, “but what we need is a timetable, who’s responsible for what, and what dollar figures might be attached to some of these [items].”

Reed congratulated Elwell and the Selectboard — and added, “but now it’s time for the details."

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Originally published in The Commons issue #428 (Wednesday, October 4, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.

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