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Newfane not united in taking voluntary anti-bias training

Selectboard members split on request, and residents hold strong, clearly opposing views

NEWFANE—Selectboard members have not been unanimous in agreeing to attend a voluntary, three-part anti-bias training hosted by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) or ask others involved in town government to do so.

After a 90-minute discussion, board members concluded at their June 7 meeting that those who agreed to take the training — Chair Angela Sanborn, Ann Golob, and Katy Johnson-Aplin — will report back in July how they feel about the course.

Board member Shelley Huber said she would not do so. It’s unclear whether board member Michael Fitzpatrick will participate.

The online training sessions started June 21 and will continue on June 28 and July 14.

West River Valley Mutual Aid (WRVMA) had written a letter to the board to recommend that members take the VLCT anti-bias training and to advocate strongly that all town officials, employees, and volunteers, as well as any interested community members, also do so.

They’ve also recommended then pursuing more in-depth, Newfane-specific options with a two-person consultant team to customize trainings to meet the town’s needs. Both have experience working with small towns and have been recommended by town managers in Brattleboro and Putney.

The VLCT training is free to member towns. Brattleboro, a much larger municipality, was quoted approximately $14,343 from Dr. Mary Gannon and Dr. Dottie Morris.

Morris has been associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at Keene State College since 2008. She serves on Keene’s Human Rights Committee and College City Commission. She was also appointed to the New Hampshire Governor’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion.

Gannon developed a plan for equity and diversity for Burlington, where she designed and implemented training sessions about implicit bias and inequity for city employees. She has worked on a similar project in Hartford.

Juliette Carr, WRVMA co-founder and a member of its steering committee and anti-racism working group, referenced the anti-“Black Lives Matter” graffiti found on Route 30 last summer, which WRVMA members removed, saying they felt the town took too long to do so.

Carr said before the meeting that the board’s agreeing to take the training and highly recommend it would “build on our successful effort from last fall to have the selectboards in Newfane and Jamaica release statements condemning the racist graffiti in the [West River] Valley.”

About 200 people, including 134 Newfane residents, signed a petition calling on town officials and employees to participate in the training.

“What is that? Ten percent of the population? And you speak on behalf of all of us? No,” said Selectboard member Shelley Huber.

An unusual start

As soon as the meeting opened, Huber moved to remove the request from the agenda altogether. That motion was defeated.

She then moved to put the request before Town Meeting, but without a second, no action was taken. She finally moved to put the issue higher on the agenda, which was agreed to.

When it was, she immediately introduced guest Alice Flanders, who lives in Hartford, not in Newfane.

Flanders is a long-time Vermont resident who won the Republican nomination in the 2020 race for the Vermont House to represent the Windsor-4-2 District. She lost in the general election.

“I want our kids all to be confident that equal opportunity is the law of the land,” said Flanders, a Black woman who married into a storied political, white, multi-generational Vermont family. “I do not support equity.”

Flanders, a mathematician and former Navy military officer with 15 years active duty and eight years in the Naval Reserve, served at the Pentagon and has written often about her view.

“I’m so happy to be here,” she said, noting she had met her husband in 1976 after she was chosen, after her first year of studying physics, to work in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I’m here in Vermont,” Flanders said. “I’ve come to respect this great state and the wonderful heart of the people here.”

She went on to say she is “concerned” with what is happening in Vermont and the nation, noting Vermont has “a beautiful and deep history of supporting freedom.”

Flanders continued to explain her experience of studying more, better, and longer to prove her scholastic mettle as a young woman.

“We can’t rescue everyone [...] we can only change where we are and stay on the good track,” said Flanders, noting academic scores in the state were declining before the pandemic and saying “Covid was a good excuse.”

“When people realize you have a competent individual who is a team member, they’d be stupid to turn someone away because of the color of their skin,” she said. “There will be those who have their biases, but we’ll let competence speak for itself.”

Support and opposition

“I see the training that has been proposed in a different light and I see it as a way to add to people’s knowledge . . .and as a way to increase people’s ....that they can be more caring,” said Golob, after Huber first spoke.

Golob said she has taken similar courses and “all had value” and that in talking with residents in the past weeks, she had been “surprised” at how many others have voluntarily taken such classes.

“They have become ubiquitous throughout the working world,” she said, noting that Vermont state law, as it was explained to the board, does not give the town the authority to mandate such training “but we can strongly suggest and encourage it. I would like to recommend that we do so."

“Is this training a solution in search of a problem?” asked Flanders.

“It is a way of sharing knowledge, information, and background that I think can be used by anybody,” replied Golob.

Apple Gifford, Newfane resident, Justice of the Peace, new business owner, and part of the WRVMA anti-racism working group, read a long letter into the minutes that addressed the information WRVMA had been asked to gather after its first meeting with the Selectboard.

She noted that after talking with residents, friends, and colleagues, the group has started to compile a list of anti-bias training offerings open to all residents.

Nine municipalities, she said, now have equity committees or equity position staff members.

In the letter, members asked that the board not only adopt voluntary anti-bias training at that night‘s meeting but also pass a motion to take the training and “in the strongest terms” recommend others do so as well.

That did not happen in any official motion on June 7.

Divisive or unifying?

The meeting was often contentious and numerous times members of the public appeared to be speaking to one another rather than addressing the board.

Planning Commission Chair Ken Estey noted that at his group’s May 13 meeting, commissioners had voted unanimously to support anti-bias and diversity training for themselves.

“I believe that anti-bias and diversity training is a fundamental best practice,” he said.

“Who are we now that’s so terrible that we have to change being who we are?” countered Huber. “We have to think about everybody in this community, not just those who believe in anti-bias training and diversity, but those who believe in themselves [...] and take care of their neighbors.”

“You are asking for the town to consider something that is universal for everyone to live under,” she continued. “We don’t need that in the town of Newfane.”

Keats Dieffenbach, new to town, said, effectively, that refusal to be more informed via the training displays underlying “racism.”

“This initiative is not about anything being wrong with Newfane, but the ongoing work that needs to be done,” Dieffenbach said. “That there’s so much resistance indicates there is a great need for this kind of initiative.”

Thomas Abbotts, whose family lived in Newfane, he said, since World War I, took issue, pulling down his mask momentarily, saying he was doing so for people to see his face and that he wasn’t hiding behind it.

Dieffenbach immediately stepped back in seeming alarm, and Abbotts replaced his mask.

“Most people I know will give you the shirt off their back [and] help their neighbor,” Abbotts said, calling the question of training “a very political subject throughout the country.”

He advocated that any question of training should be a ballot question, not decided on the floor of a Town Meeting or by a Selectboard vote.

“Then you’ll know the true feeling of the town. Not 10 percent,” he continued, saying the “passive-aggressive suggestion” that those who don’t agree to such training are racist is “offensive.”

“I think it’s important that we are willing to learn and grow,” Fiona Creed Chevalier said.

“We are responsible individuals who need to take care of ourselves [...] it’s the family that’s responsible,” Huber struck back. “It’s not this community that’s responsible to teach others.”

Board member Katie Johnson-Aplin, former military, spoke of her “culture shock” in moving to the West Coast after growing up here.

“I was completely unprepared coming from Newfane, Vermont,” she said. “I was unprepared to live side by side with people who did not have the same New England experience. If we want to welcome people to our town, we have to be welcoming.”

Resident Christine White was not opposed to the training, but said “you can’t make people be moral” and that she has a problem with training “being taken on by town government,” warning, “this could be divisive.”

“I love Newfane and I’m not leaving. But there are folks who have expressed that they’re not entirely comfortable [...] when we’re talking about a training that is voluntary, I don’t understand the threat in that,” said Dan DeWalt, adding that “such anger and resistance is baffling and sad and seems an effort to delegitimize it.”

“The only problem is I have the history and I have seen initiatives like this that were voluntary at first and became de facto,” Flanders said. “I would say again, is there a problem in Newfane?”

“I can already see the writing on the wall,” she continued. “The first thing that’s gonna happen is instead of seeing me as Alice, you’re going to have to see me as a Black woman, and that’s a step back.”

“I’m not trying to say people don’t have a problem, but if you do, there are places you can go to get that training. When the government steps in and says, ‘We’re going to work on this,’ [that] makes it a problem.

“Don’t do me any favors and try to make things equitable. I don’t want equity. You want a grade like mine? You do the work.”

Tom Ely served 20 years as Episcopal bishop of Vermont and said he’s seen diversity issues “through the lens of the church.”

“The issue is not about power in terms of the Selectboard, it’s about leadership,” he said.

“There are issues around Vermont. It’s true [...] and our opportunities to give leadership in offering training is an important opportunity,” he said, adding that “learning about dignity and white privilege have increased his understanding immensely.”

“I think this issue is more a division than it is a uniter,” Huber responded.

Moore Free Library Librarian Erica Walch also submitted a letter to the board in which she called the WRVMA request “absurd.”

“Self-declared political labels are slippery things and often designed to obscure, rather than reveal meaning [...] the ‘anti-racist’ movement is, in fact, racist,” she wrote.

“The ‘anti-racists’ believe that all people who are white are terrible, hateful, misguided, overtly or subconsciously racist, and bent on oppressing people who are not white and must attend trainings to realize how awful they are and be re-educated,” she continued.

“The ‘anti-racists’ also promote the idea that all people who are black are weak and victims of systemic racism and must be protected by well-wishing white people. Reducing people to their race, rather than considering people as individuals, is pretty much the definition of racist.”

She went on to state that the Selectboard is “an apolitical body” and that “elected and appointed officials are charged with administering the management of the town, not learning and spouting political ideologies.”

“We have diversity in Newfane, but it’s not the type of diversity the ‘woke’ crowd appreciates,” she wrote. “Many intellectuals who are Black and both liberal and conservative strongly oppose the ‘anti-racist industrial complex’ and are told by the ‘woke’ mob that they are somehow race traitors for not endorsing these unhinged views. The people who believe this ideology want everyone to believe in the ‘anti-racist’ message, which is also the opposite of diversity.”

She suggested the Selectboard “offer to help the public learn about the U.S. and Vermont constitutions, which are beautiful and inclusive documents [that] promote diversity of thought and protect all our citizens equally, regardless of the color of their skin.”

Carr said after the meeting that she’s looking at the glass half-full.

“It’s wonderful that most of the Selectboard and many town volunteers — such as the entire Planning Commission — recognize the relevance of learning more about other people’s perspectives,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that some people are trying to make this into a politically charged issue when, in reality, these trainings have become standard professional practice.”

The training

Founded in 1967, VLCT is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that “serves and strengthens Vermont local government.”

In offering the three-part, online diversity, equity, and inclusion training, “Normalizing Racial Equity in Local Government,” to member towns, VLCT is partnering with the National League of Cities (NLC).

The training intends to provide members with the basics of NLC’s Race, Equity, and Leadership (REAL) training program “aimed at eliminating racial disparities, healing racial divisions, and building more equitable communities.”

The content provides leaders with a shared language for racial equity, examines existing racial disparities in cities and the implication for advancing racial equity, and introduces important concepts and tools.

VLCT notes on its website that the two introductory trainings will be permanently archived via video so any member may take them at their convenience.

The organization describes the materials as aimed to “strengthen local leaders’ knowledge and capacity to eliminate racial disparities.”

REAL was created in 2015 in the wake of social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and “helps to empower and equip local officials with tools to address racial disparities in their communities.”

“As local leaders look to re-imagine government policies, procedures, and processes to build more equitable communities, REAL is available to help cities and towns learn the impact of historical inequities and design programs that dismantle structural and system racism,” reads the message on the group’s website.

In their proposal to Brattleboro, Gannon and Morris wrote, “The ability to completely embrace diversity is key to innovation and creativity.”

“Social structures are rooted in assumptions, values, beliefs, and perspectives that go unexamined. These unexamined structures lead to honoring some ways of being while devaluing others. This process can be conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, but the outcome and impact [are] the same — some people are disenfranchised, excluded, or harmed.”

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell said by phone after the June 7 meeting that his town had sought the training from the duo after some town employees took the VLCT training. Every town employee and all Selectboard members at the time participated in the training early last year.

The pandemic thwarted progress for a few months but, by midsummer, the process resumed. The IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) Committee, comprised of town staff members, was formed and launched in January. Members have been meeting regularly to address continued learning, develop the town’s capacity to address equity, and review town policies.

“We’re excited,” Elwell said about the work.

Aftermath

At the board’s June 21 meeting, it became clear that the board had perhaps made some mistakes in handling public commentary at the June 7 meeting after several audience members spoke both during scheduled comment and open comment periods.

Estey spoke, he said, as a private citizen, not Planning Commission chair, saying he felt a “protocol, even equity” was lacking in it.

“A key element of a successful public meeting is the sense that the space one is in is safe [...] and the same rules apply to everyone,” he said, saying that Abbott’s actions “felt aggressive and the behavior felt disrespectful.”

“I was deeply concerned . . .I felt sad and disheartened over the last two weeks. . .I wouldn’t want anyone to feel a Selectboard meeting is a place that feels physically or medically unsafe,” adding “it’s already difficult enough” to get members of the public to come out and participate in town affairs.

“I just wanted you to know this and feel it with me, if you can,” said Estey, urging board members to “promulgate a set of rules” regarding best practices in public meetings.

It turns out the board has such a guideline, but had not yet voted to adopt it, which happened at the June 21 meeting, but not before more discussion.

“I don’t see any problem,” said Huber, thanking Estey but noting Abbotts had replaced his mask, said he simply wanted to speak with his face visible, and adding there is no requirement for folks to wear masks now and that board members were doing so due to a requirement from BCTV [Brattleboro Community Television, which videotapes the meetings].

Abbotts then spoke, noting he’d had his shots weeks prior to the June 7 meeting and that he understood the implications of not masking, when it was mandatory, having lost his sister, a nurse, to Covid last summer.

“This issue when I turned to that woman, I was not threatening,” he said. “I was addressing her. I didn’t raise my voice, I didn’t make any movement toward her. I even got her a chair earlier in the evening. I’m not going to take shame for something I didn’t do.”

That was when Johnson-Aplin noted “we do have rules of procedure that were not adopted this year.”

“This is a public meeting, but not of the public,” said Huber, adding she had been “very offended” by being effectively called “a racist” at the June 7 meeting.

The rules were then read aloud. They include that public comment must be addressed to the chair or board as a whole and not to individual members of the public, that one must be acknowledged by the chair to speak, that “order and decorum” must be observed, no interruption of a speaker is permitted and that no personal/impertinent/threatening remarks from a member of the public would be tolerated.

Johnson-Aplin said that such behavior included “looking somebody in the eye and givin’ him hell.”

The board — including member Mike Fitzpatrick, again present via Zoom — then voted unanimously to adopt the rules and said they will make copies available for the public at each subsequent meeting.

“Conversation between members of the public isn’t actually part of the meeting; you speak to us,” Johnson-Aplin said. “I think that’s where in very emotional conversations [...] it’s a little outside what we should be allowing.”

“Back-and-forth is not part of that. . .and rebuttal is not part of the option,” she said.

Huber noted the board’s not having already reviewed and adopted the meeting procedure policy was “just an oversight.”

Seeing that others, not scheduled to speak on the agenda, still wanted to do so, the board briefly discussed how much time to allow each to speak.

Huber moved for one-minute comments, which failed to pass. Three-minute commentary per person passed 3–2, with Huber and Fitzpatrick voting against it.

First up was Brenda Siegel, Democratic Committee chair, who noted that information has been shared with her group and her feeling that anti-bias training is “not partisan.”

“When we know better, we do better,” she said.

Resident Joseph Runge, saying he had taken part in the first training session that day, called it “critical race theory,” and “a takeover ideology that destroys everything it comes in contact with.”

He said the anti-bias issue is “highly political” and said if “taken on” by the town it would be “only a matter of time” before the town faced “exorbitant lawsuits” potentially.

According to Brittanica, critical race theory (CRT) is an “intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color.”

“Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.”

DeWalt, present for both meetings, said, “We have some folks in the town who don’t always feel safe [...] whether we feel that is ridiculous or not, it’s real.”

He called the voluntary training “an aspirational initiative on our part to make the town of Newfane a better place to be,” adding it had nothing to do with critical race theory.

Town Moderator Deborah Luskin added she was “pleased” to attend the first training and that as moderator she wants to be “the most inclusive” to best serve the town. She said she doesn’t believe “anyone should be forced” to take the training but is grateful for it.

Abbotts said he’d spoken to town employees since the June 7 meeting and that “a lot of them feel threatened” and don’t want to take the training.

Golob spoke last, saying there were more than 400 people on the first training call.

“In no way are we tracking who is taking the class, nor is it of interest to us,” she said. “It is simply none of my business — either as a Selectboard member or as an individual.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #618 (Wednesday, June 23, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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