Keene committee offers action items for advancing racial equity

Mia Summerson, The Keene Sentinel, N.H.
·5 min read

Apr. 14—A Keene committee tasked with assessing racial bias in the city has completed its report to the City Council, recommending ways government, schools and the community can address racism.

The 11-page report, dated March 18, was presented to the council's Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee last week. Since July, Keene's ad hoc Racial Justice and Community Safety Committee has been discussing places where bias might occur, such as in schools and among law enforcement, and holding conversations with the public to identify ways to cut down on that bias.

"This brief report serves to make recommendations that will both create a racial equity lens for the City, businesses, and individuals throughout the community," the report says in its introduction, "and also build a foundation for what will, ideally, be beginning steps in a long-term, sustainable, and effective approach to advancing racial equity."

The FOP Committee voted unanimously to accept the report as informational, and the full council is expected to vote on it Thursday. However, just because it was accepted as informational doesn't mean it will be forgotten after its final approval, said FOP Committee Chairman Thomas Powers. He called the report "an action plan" and said "there's a lot to be done" after it receives the council's support.

The racial justice committee formed last June after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. His death sparked widespread protest and calls for action to address systemic racism within U.S. institutions. Former officer Derek Chauvin — who knelt on Floyd's neck during his arrest for more than nine minutes — is being tried on murder charges.

The Keene committee's report contains five areas of recommendation: government leadership, public input and community education, public safety, city and community, and education in schools. Recommendations include seeking more diverse employees in public agencies, increasing racial-bias training and awareness efforts, and better supporting mental health services and other ways to help the Keene Police Department respond to mental health emergencies.

The report also calls for adjusting school curricula to be more inclusive and enhancing opportunities for people to speak about racism in the community.

Other recommendations include the city promoting festivals that celebrate diversity, working with local businesses and organizations to develop community programming focused on race-related education, and having police officers work with local youths and families to foster relationships. The committee also urges schools to establish anti-racism policies and encourages the state to adopt one for schools as well.

The racial justice committee is co-chaired by Dottie Morris, associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at Keene State College, and former Cheshire County jail Superintendent Richard Van Wickler. Other members include City Councilor Catherine Workman, Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera, Tia Hockett, Aditi Saleh, Gail Somers and Pierre Morton, who started in his role as Franklin Pierce University's first chief diversity officer on Monday.

"We see this report as kind of a start of something pretty great," Morris said during last week's FOP Committee meeting. She added that racial-justice committee members are "all in it for the long haul and would be willing to do whatever we need to do to be in the implementation phase of this report, in any way that the community or city government feel we can be helpful and productive."

The report says the committee, during its many conversations with community members, heard from people who have experienced "racist slurs, aloof comments about slavery, school curricula that are inadequate regarding the important experience and influence of black Americans, lack of anti-racism policy, fear of reprisal for any response to racist activity and lack of racial diversity in important services such as medical services."

Councilor Raleigh Ormerod pointed out a recommendation in the report that suggests city officials act to address racist language when they encounter it, either in person or on social media, and asked whether there would be training on how to do so in a constructive manner.

Morris said there are people both on the racial justice committee and elsewhere in the Keene community who have experience in that type of training. She said they know how to train people to handle these interactions in a way that strengthens the community, as opposed to creating more tension.

"The how-to is important," she said. "Because not a lot of us are trained to do that type of work, of doing it in such a way that it enhances the conversation rather than calling out people. This whole idea of calling people into a conversation is something we talked about on a few occasions."

Mayor George Hansel, who originally called for the ad hoc committee's formation, commended its work, calling it "exactly what this community needed." He said the report's recommendations are actionable items that can be moved forward.

Hansel also encouraged community members to participate as the city begins to implement the recommendations. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said she will look at ways to engage the public as the initiative moves ahead.

Assistant City Manager Rebecca Landry, who served as a staff liaison to the racial justice committee, also stressed the importance of public participation. The local government can do a lot, she said, but it will take the people to help realize the committee's vision.

"The hope is that the community as a whole will engage some of these recommendations," Landry said. "Because it is going to take the entire community to make a difference."

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter

@MiaSummerson