Bristol's ‘Diversity’ discussion brings debate and discord

Residents asking town to form new ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ committee hear mixed reactions

By Scott Pickering
Posted 10/7/20

A group of private citizens has asked the Town of Bristol to send a strong message about diversity and inclusion by forming a new committee. Their request touched off a lengthy and at times emotional …

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Bristol's ‘Diversity’ discussion brings debate and discord

Residents asking town to form new ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ committee hear mixed reactions

Posted

A group of private citizens has asked the Town of Bristol to send a strong message about diversity and inclusion by forming a new committee. Their request touched off a lengthy and at times emotional discussion during the Sept. 30 Bristol Town Council meeting.

Brought by spokesman Rob Hancock on behalf of a group that includes about a dozen residents, the request is to form a new Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that would have a formal role in town government. Though its exact structure was not clear during the meeting, Mr. Hancock and others said the new committee would have strictly an advisory role, helping the town develop “inclusive and equitable policies” throughout government.

In the end, the town council voted unanimously to defer the request for now, to give Mr. Hancock time to meet with the town’s solicitor and draft a more detailed description for the committee and its role. That followed a very mixed reaction from town councilors, as well as strong statements both for and against by more than a dozen residents.

‘Welcoming and inclusive’

In introducing the concept during the meeting held via Zoom, Mr. Hancock said, “I know of black residents in our town who feel like they don’t belong here or are welcome in our community … I know of women who have faced harassment, online and in the community … I want to stand with these residents and say ‘that’s not the Bristol we want to be.’ ”

In addition to advising the town on policies and standards, the committee would also work to plan outreach events and community programs.

Councilors Tim Sweeney and Aaron Ley were enthusiastic supporters of the concept. Mr. Sweeney said, “I think it’s important that we send a positive message that we’re welcoming and open to all.”

Mr. Ley said, “Over the past few months, I think we’ve experienced an awakening that has caused many of us to look around … I’ve listened in horror to personal stories, told by neighbors of diverse backgrounds, that suggest to me that our work is not yet done.” He suggested that making Bristol more “welcoming and inclusive” can have economics benefits, with enhanced tourism and a stronger sense of community.

An immigrant community

Two town councilors were not as enthusiastic. Councilor Mary Parella had a lot of questions about how the group would operate, how it would be appointed, the authority it would have and the role it would play. Warning that it could become a committee that “will tell us what we’re doing wrong, and how to fix it,” she said, “I’d like more explanation. I don’t feel like this proposal is done.”

The group proposed that the town council appoint the chairman and vice chairman of this new committee, and then the committee itself will recruit and appoint its other members. Ms. Parella didn’t agree with that program.

“This committee is being portrayed as something everyone is going to feel good about it, and everyone will be happy about, and you want the town to support it, but the town’s not going to appoint the members. That’s not consistent with how things are done,” she said.

“What do you actually want? And what are you actually requesting? … I don’t think that’s an unfair question.”

After Mr. Hancock responded to some of her questions, Ms. Parella expanded on some of her feelings. She talked about missing the many festivals that were canceled this summer because of Covid-19 and suggested that Bristol already has a very diverse profile that celebrates different cultures and people.

Talking about Bristol’s history of Italian and Portuguese festivals, she said, “A lot of this goes on in town already … And it’s organized by their own groups. And they want to educate people about their culture, or tell their immigration story.”

Councilor Tony Teixeira briefly told his own immigrant story, about coming here to Bristol in 1970, saying it was not always easy but today, “I feel very welcome here.” He also said that diversity or inclusion problems have never been a concern in the past. “We’ve never faced any of these issues in all our years on the council,” he said.

He concluded that the proposal needs more work before he could consider endorsing it.

A board seeking ‘divisiveness’?

Before opening the topic to public discussion, Council Chairman Nathan Calouro invited Town Administrator Steven Contente to speak. The administrator was very skeptical of the committee’s potential role and impact.

“I hope this doesn’t create divisiveness that we don’t typically see.

We have a state-approved affirmative action plan. Our highest-paid town employees is a female. We have various orientations among our town employees. Our police department has just finished a very well thought out diversity plan. I think our police department is very well regarded … They do a great job, and even for those who don’t agree with law and order, they will respond. I just hope that we really identify what the issues are here in Bristol, and we’re not looking for issues that aren’t here,” he said. “I say that as a son of an immigrant who came here with no money. I am proud of the town of Bristol … I hope this doesn’t become a divisive board. I hope that it is well intended.”

Speaking in favor

Lindsey Gumb spoke passionately about the need for such a committee in Bristol. Describing herself as a librarian and assistant professor at Roger Williams University, as well as a white woman and single mother who works two jobs to be able to afford to live in this town, she said, “All of the examples tonight of cultural diversity in this town are about white ethnic groups.

“Marginalized groups don’t always have the privilege of speaking up. I think it’s completely unfair to put marginalized groups in the position of having to speak up, where white people are the dominant group.”

She added, “I’m a nontenured female faculty member at the university, and I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been subjected to gender discrimination, and yet I don’t feel it’s safe to speak up, to any authority, because I am unprotected, and I am fearful of what could happen if I speak up.”

Jamie Brooks, a candidate for Bristol Warren Regional School Committee, said she has worked in healthcare for decades, and that industry has successfully incorporated inclusion and diversity committees for years. She sees a need in Bristol.

“There are times when I have not felt safe, when I had issues with the schools, when I didn’t feel the schools were listening,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable going to the town council … People might feel better going to someone who is like them … This committee is not only warranted, it’s needed.”

Scott MacPherson said, “I don’t know how anyone could look at all the racial strife all around us and not see the need for this committee … There’s a huge gap in understanding around the issues of race.”

Roberto Philippe, a man of color who says he has built a high quality of life in this country, wants to ensure future generations have similar opportunities.

“I am a naturalized citizen who had the opportunity to go to higher education and make something of myself,” Mr. Philippe said. “But some doors aren’t going to be open to all people. So I’m pushing for this committee so that the people behind me have that same opportunity. Because we all want the ideal that our next generation will be greater than the one we’re living.”

Military men in favor

William Bullard, a Navy veteran with 30 years of active duty service, spoke positively about the potential impact of a diversity committee, and criticized some of the previously stated objections: “Your perspective is astoundingly western European and white … that’s not diverse,” he said.

Joel Huval, a retired senior chief in the Navy, agreed passionately with Mr. Bullard. “If there was ever a symbol that said there was a need an inclusion and diversity group, it would be a town that had a spat over a flag for Black Lives Matter,” he said. “That’s a red flag there that says there’s an issue with differing views.”

Mr. Huval talked about the wider geopolitical climate in 2020, and where this world is heading.

Talking about polarization in the world, he said, “There is a growing shift and growing divide in ideological views … and if we don’t get out in front of this now, we run the risk of having bigger problems later on.

“I’m not anti-cop, I’m from a law enforcement family. I’m retired military. And I’m telling you, if we don’t get out in front of this now, we’re gong to have problems. So I fully support, and this whole town should fully support, a committee that is dedicated to making sure that we communicate, that we’re all on the same page.”

Those opposed …

Dave Scarpino said he is opposed to the idea, at least on the surface. He suggested that if a group of people want to organize and celebrate a Diversity Day, they can do that without forming an official town body.

To all he urged, “I would prefer that this issue not deteriorate in the public domain … try to keep it civil and not descend the way we did with the flags.”

Troy Kennedy said he puts faith in the 15,000 voters who elect five people to the town council, plus an administrator. “I don’t always agree with all of them, but I agree that is the right way to go forward,” he said.

Mr. Kennedy also warned that one month before an election and potential shakeup of town leadership is not the best time to introduce a concept like this.

Council candidate Mike Byrnes shared strong oppositions to the proposal, but he first talked about his own experiences in town earlier this summer.

“I was implicitly called racist because I opposed the Black Lives Matter flag,” he said. “I opposed it not for racial reasons, but for practical reasons … And I support a number of black organizations, but I don’t support Black Lives Matter, and I never will. I don’t think that is a good stand-in for one’s racial attitudes.”

Of the committee he said, “It seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Just because other towns are doing it, does not make it right to also follow that path.”

Mr. Byrnes also spoke about his experiences living in a totalitarian country (China) for 20 years. “This committee is something I saw frequently during those years,” Mr. Byrnes said. “It’s thought police. It’s going to tell us how we live our lives. And I’m impressed with all these intelligent people telling other people how they should think, how they should act, how they should operate, and whether they’re racists or not, and whether they discriminate or not. I think that’s a lot of hubris, for people to make that accusation without any benefit of understanding, or fact.”

Peter Hewett said, “I fear the committee, as proposed and envisioned, would serve as a board that would be inclusive, until the town council didn’t agree with their recommendation or advice … and as soon as the town council or town administrator didn’t go along with … you would find yourself vilified.”

Speaking of Bristol today, Mr. Hewett said, “The town council of Bristol is comprised of a female, three whites, one immigrant and one gay, and we have a superintendent of schools who is a black man. So I don’t really see where we have a problem that requires the establishment of a committee.”

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