For Brattleboro, a Charter of Compassion

Voter-approved initiative calls for municipal endorsement of ‘absolute justice, equity, and respect’

BRATTLEBORO — It wasn't exactly with a stroke of the pen, but on May 2, in a unanimous voice vote, the five members of the Selectboard declared the town “compassionate.”

Brattleboro is now a Compassionate City as articulated in the Charter for Compassion.

What does this mean? And what are the town's responsibilities?

These are questions Town Manager Peter B. Elwell and his staff researched to help the Selectboard prepare for their vote on the resolution.

During the winter months leading up to Town Meeting, Rupa Cousins, Edward Suprenant, and other members of the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Initiative led a successful petition drive to get an article on the ballot asking voters if the town should become a Compassionate City.

On March 7, voters approved the article, with 83 percent in favor. This meant the resolution would go to the Selectboard for their consideration.

At the April 4 Selectboard meeting - the first regular meeting after the post-elections reorganization - Elwell said, “what makes [the Compassionate Cities issue] more complicated, is there's a program to subscribe to,” that might require responsibilities of the town, so he and his staff were going to look into the details.

What they found was “it's among the lightest lifts imaginable,” Elwell told Selectboard members at the May 2 Board meeting.

Local leadership

Elwell worked closely with James and Dorothy Levinson, a father-daughter team that has assumed leadership of the local Compassionate Cities movement, to learn about the town's responsibilities and to draft a resolution.

“Wording on the resolution comes right from my talks with the Levinsons about how to do this,” Elwell said, adding that if the Selectboard adopts the resolution, “we'll run parallel” to local grassroots efforts.

According to the program's website, “The Charter for Compassion is a document that transcends religious, ideological, and national differences. Supported by leading thinkers from many traditions, the Charter calls on us to activate the Golden Rule around the world."

The Resolution for Compassion in Brattleboro states that, “among other things, the Charter ... affirms the 'inviolable sanctity of every single human being,' calls upon all people to treat each other 'with absolute justice, equity, and respect,' and states that 'we urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world.'”

In signing it, the Resolution states, the Selectboard proclaims the town “is committed to the principles expressed in [the Charter], supports the collaboration of local individuals and organizations to promote those principles through a variety of public and private actions ... will remain mindful of the impacts of our actions not only in Brattleboro but upon people and places beyond our borders, and invites all people to observe and participate in Town government and to hold Town ... officials accountable for conducting ... public business in a manner that is consistent with this resolution.”

Ongoing feedback

To further these efforts, Elwell committed to attending the next Compassion Charter Follow-Up Committee meeting on May 9 and, in a memorandum on the subject, said he will “participate in their future committee work to the extent that Town participation is appropriate, desired, and helpful.”

The Levinsons and other committee members were at the May 2 Board meeting, and will likely attend again.

“I asked them to continue offering feedback to the town,” Elwell said.

“Helping those in need is what this resolution is all about,” Jim Levinson told the Selectboard, and offered a few examples: helping kids who are in trouble, and supporting at-risk families.

When an audience member asked what will be different in practice once the Selectboard approves this resolution, Dorothy Levinson said, “maybe the outcome won't be different, but it's in the [meeting] minutes ... so we can go back to these minutes if something comes up and there's a question about if a decision is compassionate.”

“It's not just a matter of waiting to hear” from townspeople whether decisions were compassionate or not, said Elwell. “The Levinsons and I are committed to working together,” he said.

Attendee Pete Nickerson asked if dissent is allowed under the Charter for Compassion. “Dissent is natural,” Elwell said, adding compassion ensures a place for different opinions.

“What's a little sad about this is, we have to have a resolution to show compassion,” noted Selectboard member John Allen.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates