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Williamstown Diversity Committee Reviews Its Guiding Principles

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's diversity committee Monday reviewed the operating principles it adopted last year and discussed whether some of them ought to be modified.
 
Monday marked the second meeting in four days for the newly constituted Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Advisory Committee, which held a Friday afternoon "retreat" last week.
 
It was the first meeting in the committee's normal Monday evening time slot since the Select Board made three appointments to bring the panel to a full membership of seven.
 
Only three DIRE Committee members remain from the nine who inaugurated the body in summer 2020 and adopted a set of eight guiding principles on Sept. 28, 2020.
 
One of the new appointees, Carrie Greene, led off the review of those principles by asking about the turn of phrase in the first principle, which says the committee's process must be "inclusive and equitable."
 
Greene suggested that those ideas might contain an inherent contradiction. If "equity" means emphasizing the voices of the traditionally marginalized, as DIRE Committee members and the principles document have consistently emphasized, can the conversation be fully inclusive, Greene asked.
 
"Including or foregrounding voices that have not historically been hard or felt safe coming forward, if others feel that they're pushed out in that, if they don't feel included, is DIRE doing the job it's intending to do?" Greene asked. "I do know there are folks in town who feel excluded from the conversation, and maybe that's part of the reality or part of what happens when you foreground historically marginalized voices.
 
"I'm asking what do we say when we talk about inclusivity, and yet there are those who feel they've been intentionally or unintentionally excluded."
 
Andrew Art, one of the three original DIRE Committee members still serving on the group, said he agreed that the panel has not always heard a diverse range of voices, but he said that is not for lack of trying. Art noted that he personally has made appeals for more diverse opinions during the DIRE meetings — most of which are telecast on the town's community access television station.
 
"The people who have participated in our meetings have, perhaps, been a group who wanted to focus on a variety of topics important to them," Art said. "It's not that we've been excluding others from participating at all, ever.
 
"The following principles, when we get there, describe what we've centered on as our committee's priorities in terms of making recommendations. But as far as having open forums, we have not excluded anyone from participating ever."
 
Another longtime member of the DIRE Committee, Jeffrey Johnson, said since the panel was formed, he has been "begging" more people to attend its meetings an participate.
 
"It's shocking the people who reach out to me [outside of meetings]," Johnson said. "As far as how I look at the language [in the principles], I'm adamant that we've never tried to have anyone feel uncomfortable speaking here.
 
"There are four 'townies' on this committee now, although we're all townies. This is the start of trying to bring out more voices. I say this all the time: We're more alike than not."
 
At the start of Monday's meeting, Greene pointed out that four of the DIRE Committee members grew up in Williamstown, including herself, Johnson, Art and Andi Bryant, who identified herself as a fourth-generation resident of the town.
 
Shana Dixon, who has lived in town for three years and Berkshire County for 13, said she found the language in the first committee principle to be "very welcoming."
 
"It doesn't have negative undertones," Dixon said. "Just to read it, I feel included."
 
Dixon raised a different issue on the committee's second principle, which notes that the DIRE Committee's work is intersectional, recognizing that "addressing racial equity also means addressing issues of gender, sexual, class, and other forms of marginalization, and vice versa."
 
"My opinion is [the issues] can all be separate as well," Dixon said. "Just because you have a racial issue, it doesn't mean it is about gender. I'd like the phrasing changed so it isn't about everything at once. It can be, but also, does it have to be?"
 
Greene also pointed out that the word "intersectional" is academic and not necessarily accessible to all readers, leading to a conversation about creating a glossary of terms.
 
Art said the document, which is posted on the town's website, could include hyperlinks to pages that explain some of the terms used. Johnson suggested using footnotes.
 
Later in the meeting, Art said he always had an issue with the eighth principle in the founding document, which states, in part, "We urge everyone to think about the difference between fears that are based on statistical, historical, and well-documented histories and current news of injustice, and fears that are based on worries about lost social standing, embarrassment and shame, or other emotional discomforts. We would like to avoid the latter, simultaneously recognizing that as a matter of ethics, mission, and practicality we must prioritize the former."
 
Art said he did not think it was the committee's place to guess at residents' motivations or assess the legitimacy of their fears.
 
"People feel fearful based on their own experiences and narrative of what's happening in their world," he said. "It's really a personal thing. I don't feel it's possible always to distinguish between the source of someone's fear. … If someone is feeling fear, it's true to them.
 
"My own personal view is this goes a little too far for our committee's assessment of what the basis of someone's fear is."
 
Kerri Nicoll, the third "original" member of the committee, defended the idea behind the principle.
 
"There is a part of me that thinks it's important to recognize that this work makes people uncomfortable," Nicoll said. "I'm not sure we need to recognize that in the principles. I think there's value in saying that the things we'll talk about may make people uncomfortable, may make us uncomfortable, and we want to have those conversations through the discomfort, if that makes sense."
 
As the discussion about the founding principles stretched to about 90 minutes of a planned two-hour meeting, Nicoll suggested that a working group of the committee convene before the next meeting to distill Monday's conversation into some suggested revisions that the full committee can consider at its next meeting. Art and Bryant volunteered to work with Nicoll on that project.
 
In other business on Monday, Nicoll, Greene and Randall Fippinger volunteered to form a working group to create a job description for the committee's chair. Mohammed Memfis served that role in the committee's first year, but the 2021 Williams College graduate was one of the six members who did not continue into the panel's second year. Nicoll has been organizing meetings for the group since June.

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Mount Greylock District Aims to Increase Sense of Belonging for All Families

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Recent reports of racist incidents at Williamstown Elementary School prompted a discussion at the Mount Greylock School Committee on Thursday.
 
And that discussion tied directly to a scheduled discussion about the long-term improvement plan for the district.
 
Committee member Jose Constantine raised the issue during the monthly report from WES Principal Cindy Sheehy.
 
"The question I have is one that is in response to what seems to be a step change in the number of racist incidents afflicting children in Williamstown," said Constantine, who holds one of four seats designated for Williamstown residents on the seven-person committee. "They seem to be occurring on a near weekly basis either at the elementary school or the [Williamstown] Youth Center.
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