In the context of America in 2021, the numbers were not surprising; however, to the city council and city officials, they were unacceptable.
“It’s hard to hear but deeply important and a good springboard for action,” Mayor Anne Watson said, after the recent presentation of the City of Montpelier Equity Assessment that the council had commissioned. The project had the goals of capturing “the concerns and needs of underserved and underrepresented communities in Montpelier” and of identifying “effective strategies to engage with and include” those communities.
Back in 2018, the city council established the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee “to assist city council in addressing and reshaping systems, policies, and practices that perpetuate barriers to racial, social, and economic justice in our community.”
As part of that work, last year the council hired Creative Discourse, an equity consulting team that includes Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Tabitha Moore, to do the research and write the report. Hinsdale is a Chittenden County senator, and Moore is the former head of the Rutland Chapter of the NAACP.
The report was based on several types of input, including focus groups in which more than 80 people participated, one-on-one interviews, and a survey completed by almost 350 people. By a variety of measures, it showed that white, well-educated, heterosexuals reported more positive experiences of living and working in the city than did other groups.
For example, in response to the statement, “I feel a deep sense of belonging in Montpelier,” only 39 percent of Black, indigenous, and people of color respondents (abbreviated as BIPOC here, as in the report) agreed, whereas 68 percent of white respondents did. Forty-five percent of LGBTQ+ respondents agreed, and 69 percent of heterosexuals did. Of those with no college education, 46 percent agreed; for those with a college degree or above, 64 percent agreed.
One section of the survey asked respondents to what degree they felt “engaged and valued” by various city entities. In relation to the city council, only 3 percent of BIPOC respondents said they always felt engaged and valued by the council, whereas 23 percent of white respondents said they did. At the other extreme, 27 percent of BIPOC respondents said they never felt engaged and valued by the council, while only 13 percent of white respondents did.
The gaps were wide for the city clerk’s office, too. While only 16 percent of BIPOC respondents said they always felt engaged and valued, 39 percent of whites said they did. A full 24 percent of BIPOC respondents said they never felt engaged and valued by the city clerk’s office; strikingly lower, only 4 percent of whites said that.
City Clerk John Odum expressed strong concerns about what the numbers suggested, and he vowed to learn why and to do whatever he can to close the gap. City Manager William Fraser said he was surprised by those numbers and suggested that maybe, in the eyes of the public, frustration with anything at city hall falls onto the highly visible city clerk’s office.
The numbers for the Montpelier Police Department followed a similar pattern. Only 8 percent of BIPOC respondents said they always felt engaged and valued by the Montpelier police, while 23 percent of whites did. Twenty-seven percent of BIPOC respondents said they never felt engaged and valued by the police; 13 percent of whites said that.
During her in-person presentation to the council on Aug. 18, Hinsdale noted that this project honored and tried not to eclipse the work being done by the Police Review Committee. The Police Review Committee released its draft 78-page report for public comment on Sept. 3, 2021; that committee is scheduled to report to the council on Oct. 13. The equity report does include some significant items related to police, though.
“A lot of the feedback is very contradictory and polarized what people wanted to see from the police department,” Hins-dale said. “At the same time, what we heard underlying all of it was a desire to have trust and relationships that cut across a lot of the polarization.”
In a follow-up phone interview last week, Shaina Kasper, chair of the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee, said she was pleased with the council’s reaction to the presentation. “We saw the council respond with the engagement and compassion necessary to make the real, meaningful changes recommended by the experts.”
In their report, the consultants provided 17 “ideas for change” that arose as themes from the public input. They also provided seven recommendations of their own.
The ideas from the community included conducting anti-racism trainings for staff, doing a better job of answering emails (by councilors), and hiring more women and BIPOC staff members. In the area of policing, ideas included creation of a mental health crisis team, having police get out of their vehicles and be more approachable, and defunding, decreasing the number of, or disarming the police. Hinsdale noted that the surveys included over 160 comments — very widely varied — about police issues. She also noted that the community is still suffering from unresolved trauma over past violent episodes involving the police.
Consultant recommendations included offering stipends for service on boards and commissions to reduce financial barriers for some residents, such as the cost of child care, loss of income, and limited access to transportation. They also recommended that the city acknowledge the division about policing — with many residents wanting a greater police presence and many others wanting less police presence. As part of that, the city should work to build trust and personal relationships, and in that process, “center the voices and needs of those most impacted by police violence locally and nationally.”
Hinsdale had high praise for city employees. “The city staff were so eager to have this conversation and know how they could do better,” she said. “Everyone…said, ‘We just want to know, how do we see and touch equity in our work, and how do we implement that?’”
Both Kasper and Councilor Lauren Hierl, the council liaison on the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee, said that committee has met once since the presentation to the council and is busy with planning next steps. In a phone interview last week, Hierl said the Social and Economic Justice Advisory Committee is working with Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer, who is the staff liaison, to determine which actions need to go back to the council and which actions city staff should implement right away. Ultimately, all decisions about which actions to take are up to the council.
Niedermayer, also in a phone interview, said the Creative Discourse assessment and follow-up work are the first phase in the city’s ongoing commitment to this work, and that it’s being taken seriously. “It’s one of the largest initiatives in my office’s work plan.”
Following recommendations from the report, Hierl said the organization is working with Niedermayer to identify individuals and groups who may want more involvement with city issues and to use that information to increase direct outreach. They have also started identifying resources to help increase language access at meetings and on the website, as well as planning for continued use of hybrid meetings that allow for both in-person and virtual participation. More than half of survey respondents asked for that.
Kasper said the group’s role includes keeping the city and the council accountable and helping to identify potential projects and policies. She said they have met with the chairs of other city committees to look at their roles in fostering a more equitable and inclusive community. She also noted that all of the recommendations have been done in other cities, so they can reach out to those communities as resources.
Why begin with an assessment and report?
“We can’t get better if we don’t know what the problems are,” Hierl said. “We appreciate that so many people took the time to give us feedback.”
“This is the launching pad to do the actual work to make our city welcoming, equitable, and just for historically marginalized populations,” Kasper said.
The City of Montpelier Equity Assessment and the Police Review Committee’s draft report are both on the city website. A recording of the Aug. 18, 2021, Creative Discourse presentation to the city council is on the ORCA Media website; it begins almost two hours into the meeting, at 1:54.