An exercise posed to participants at the Brattleboro Community Safety Fair on Aug. 8.
An exercise posed to participants at the Brattleboro Community Safety Fair on Aug. 8.

‘Safety’? For whom? ‘Calm’? About what?

‘I fear that skewed survey responses may be used to serve the needs and desires of the most privileged in our town at a time when the most vulnerable need compassion and support from all of us’

BRATTLEBORO — Something has gone terribly wrong.

In a world of increasing uncertainty, climate chaos, and political polarization, we're shutting out the voices of the most vulnerable citizens of Brattleboro. Instead of listening to them, we are amplifying the voices of those who already enjoy the most resources, power, and privilege.

I attended the Brattleboro Community Safety Fair on Aug. 8 in a spirit of curiosity as well as anxiety. The event, co-sponsored by the town of Brattleboro, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, shared resources and collected opinions.

The goal, if I understood it correctly, was to inform a longer-term effort - a conversation about how to increase prosperity and quality of life for all of us by encouraging dialogue and recognizing that the interests of businesses and the interests of each human being can align to advance the common good.

I especially appreciated opportunities at this event to share what I love about Brattleboro, what worries me, and what wishes I have.

One such opportunity that I found pretty disturbing, though, was a survey developed by the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which the town is repurposing to inform strategies for responding to various types of crime, as well as diverse perceptions of "safety."

* * *

It appears that SPUR developed this survey as part of a three-part toolkit supporting a multidimensional community engagement effort in downtown San Francisco.

As a standalone tool, applied to Brattleboro and far removed from its very specific original context, this survey comes off as a push poll. It appears that the survey is meant to answer the question, "Which nuisance behaviors of unhoused people do we all hate the most?"

The biggest flaw concerns the rating scale that underpins the survey.

This rating scale conflates "calm" and "safety" - as though the only thing people (which people ... ?) think about while they are downtown is their own autonomy and security.

We live in a community, and compassion compels us to not feel calm when witnessing the pain and vulnerability of other people. Flying in the face of that reality, this survey asks exclusively about the respondent's feelings regarding their own personal safety when confronted with another person's suffering.

For example, when other people are "lying on a bench or on the ground," the survey respondent is forced to choose a number on a scale from 1 ("doesn't bother me; I might even welcome it") to 5 ("acutely disturbs my sense of safety and calm").

When I see a person lying on a bench or on the ground along the Whetstone Pathway as I walk into the Brattleboro Food Co-op to buy organically grown fruits and vegetables to feed my cherished loved ones, I am not calm. I fear for that person's safety.

But this survey does not offer me an option to express my anxiety about another person's safety.

The survey's constraints are senseless, applying only to the respondent's own sense of safety. Thus, any alleged "findings" from this survey will be inherently untrustworthy.

* * *

In particular, I fear that the people who complete this survey are far more likely to be in the "make the speech of poor people illegal" camp represented on the sticky notes I saw on the wall at the Community Safety Fair.

Three big sheets on the wall requested answers to these questions:

• What do you love about downtown?

• What are your concerns?

• What are your solutions?

The "solutions" sheet included crowdsourced sticky notes. "More police presence - law against panhandling," one said. "We need an ordinance against panhandling," said another.

The writers of these messages appear to have failed high school civics - particularly the lesson concerning the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

On a more pragmatic level, consider my compassionate reaction to someone "lying on a bench or on the ground."

How am I supposed to rate my response when the available options range from "Yeah, sounds great! More like that!" to "I am afraid this person is going to attack me, and I plan to call 9-1-1."

Nothing on that spectrum makes any sense in relation to my authentic emotional response to a person who, unlike me, has no other place to sleep than on a bench or on the ground.

* * *

So what should I do if I want to provide feedback to the town? Should I try to game the survey by ranking every listed behavior as a 1 to express my overarching feeling that unhoused people and other people who are struggling don't scare me just because they happen to be in existence in the same public place where I am in existence?

Within the constraints of this profoundly flawed survey, where do I get the opportunity to share my true, compassionate response?

It's not even possible to skip the long list of (mostly) nuisance behaviors and go straight to "write a comment": Aside from this final long-form comment field, every other item is a required question.

I think the folks at SPUR in San Francisco probably had a fairly clear sense of what they wanted to get out of this survey within the context of their many other efforts to engage diverse community members and nurture dialogue among them.

Does the town of Brattleboro?

* * *

I am calling on town leaders and the downtown business community to answer the following questions:

• How do you anticipate interpreting the data you're receiving from this survey?

• How will survey data inform other efforts at community engagement and dialogue?

• How will survey data inform complex decisions the town needs to make about policing, restorative justice, and other community safety strategies?

• What other opportunities for dialogue will the town and the business community be facilitating?

• How will future events live out the town's commitment (as documented on to condemn racism; to welcome all persons, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age, and socioeconomic class or disability; and to ensure everyone feels safe and welcome in our community?

Without explicit and proactive answers to these questions, I fear that skewed survey responses may be used to serve the needs and desires of the most privileged in our town at a time when the most vulnerable need compassion and support from all of us.

And - most especially - from the people we've entrusted with political power.

Paula Melton describes herself as "a writer, mother, wife, and opinionated person who lives in Brattleboro, Vermont" and "a cis white woman trying to make things better, especially when it comes to climate change and environmental justice."

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates