A collaborator in compassion
Soon-to-retire Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell speaks at ceremonies marking the opening of the Brattleboro Area Skatepark in 2020.

A collaborator in compassion

Peter Elwell, Brattleboro’s soon-to-retire town manager, has celebrated the work to advance the belief that people be treated with justice, equity, and respect, and to create an environment of empathy for others’ welfare

MARLBORO — As tributes continue to pour in about Peter Elwell following the announcement of his retirement as Brattleboro's Town Manager at the end of the year, we have been hearing lots about his remarkable efforts in financial planning over his six- year tenure and about his commitment to human resource development.

But perhaps beyond anything else, Peter's tenure has been one of deep personal engagement with our community, his community, an engagement characterized by deep and abiding compassion.

When Brattleboro voted to become part of the international Charter for Compassion, Peter expressed delight. “Any reasonable person would support this,” he said.

He asked to meet with those who had organized the initiative to discuss follow-up. As he began drafting the Selectboard resolution, Peter told us a touching personal story about his own family.

“When our kids were small and learning right from wrong, we stumbled onto something one day that is quite relevant to the Charter for Compassion work,” he said. “One of the kids started to explain the reason for an unkind action, and I found myself saying to them that 'meanness is always bad.' It became a guiding principle in our household.”

“I wish I could say I foresaw the power of that simple phrase,” Peter continued. It was one of those inadvertent moments between parents and children as we try to help them grow and learn - and this one really stuck.”

“I look forward to joining your effort to promote compassion over meanness (or even over neglect) in every way we can here in Brattleboro,” he said.

Peter was optimistic about the prospects, telling us that, having grown up in Brattleboro, he had always seen the town as special, with civility replacing the meanspiritedness so common elsewhere.

He spoke specifically at the time about two compassion-related initiatives he was anxious to promote - and which, over time, have indeed come to fruition.

The first was his commitment to increasing diversity within the town staff and to continue providing services to individuals in need. The second had to do with the inadequacy of the sidewalks in town, and his determination to address the problem seriously.

Finally, Peter told us with great pride about the remarkable evolution of Brattleboro's Police Department - from an earlier atmosphere sometimes characterized by alienation and distrust to one in which the department, under the leadership of Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, considers itself genuinely in partnership with the community.

A week later, in presenting the draft compassion resolution to the Selectboard, Peter wrote that “we are committed to acting, whenever possible, in accordance with the principles that everyone should be treated with justice, equity, and respect, and that living in community with one another requires us to be as concerned for others' welfare as we are for our own.”

Peter was physically present at the early meetings of Compassionate Brattleboro, and invited representatives from our group to attend Selectboard meetings.

In 2019, when he participated on the panel of a Community Conversation on Compassion and Town Government, Peter made clear that “compassion in town government means placing a high premium on fairness, and encouraging previously subdued and often fearful voices to be heard.”

He then reported that “outcomes in Brattleboro over the past few years have been different and better than in the past. We're seeing more compassionate action and a willingness to spend more money on it,” noting the funding of the skatepark and sidewalk plowing.

“Stay the course!” he said.

* * *

Any piece about Peter Elwell and compassion would be remiss without mention also of Calista Carbonell.

Calista, honored as a Brattleboro Area Covid Period Unsung Hero for her efforts to assure, even with staff limitations, continued resource availability and the capable managing of accounts, has been a devoted member of Peter's staff. On top of her myriad other responsibilities, she maintains the link on the town website devoted to the town's Charter for Compassion-related undertakings. The page contains all of the Compassion Stories of the Month, the Unsung Hero Awardees, the BCTV broadcasts of the Community Conversations on Compassion, and updates on our seven sister communities.

Most notably, the page also links to a downloadable version of the booklet Brattleboro Is a Compassionate Town, sponsored by the town, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of the Commerce, and the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Leadership Alliance, as well as Compassionate Brattleboro.

Its cover photo captures that memorable moment when kids from the New England Youth Theatre went to offer sympathy to their Flat Street neighbors Stanley and Laura Lynde after their tragic motorcycle accident in 2017.

It would hard to overstate the resoundingly positive responses this publication has received, not only from area residents, but also from persons in other towns - and other countries - who are, they tell us, now inspired to have their own communities become part of the Charter for Compassion.

In the publication, Peter wrote about the continuing need “to shine a light on the compassionate work that is already happening here and to speak up for the necessity of expanding intentional compassionate action going forward.”

In the aftermath of Covid, he wrote, “it will be incumbent upon all of us to stay committed, unselfish, empathetic, creative, collaborative, optimistic, and compassionate, as we find additional ways to be there for and with each other in service to the people of Brattleboro and beyond.”

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