Guest columnist Ana Devlin Gauthier: 2-day racial equity training is just a start

  • Amherst Town Hall

Thursday, April 15, 2021

No matter the weather, we have work to do. Now, many of us have been binging Netflix during the pandemic, but during a recent Town Council meeting, it wasn’t a plot twist in “Lupin” that made my eyes widen.

No, my jaw dropped to the floor as I watched multiple members of our elected council state their objection to a two-day racial equity training program, citing a lack of specific outcomes, the time asked of them to engage in this work, and perhaps most alarming, not wanting to sit in a training during “nice weather.”

There are a few things we know for sure, which were reiterated at this meeting before the training, which took place April 10-11. Town Council meetings are long. Our town councilors serve on multiple committees, draft policy and do other important work in service to the town that takes a significant amount of their time. Many of the councilors hold full-time jobs, have families, or would like to have balance between their work on the council and their lives outside of it. We know all of this to be true.

And what else do we know?

We know that our Town Council is majority white-presenting. We know that the Black, Indigenous and people of color members of our community, and specifically Black members of our community, are calling now (and have been calling) for necessary change. Change including an examination of policing in Amherst, reparations, hiring a chief diversity officer for the town, and increased effort of the council to examine its own biases and participation in and perpetuation of systemic and structural racism through equity and justice training.

We know that the town of Amherst must no longer willfully ignore the harm done to the BIPOC community, (and as that label represents many identities and is not a monolith of experience), especially Black members of our community. We know that white community members must no longer attend protests like they are activism checklists, returning to the comfort of privilege as soon as we leave the crowd. We know that change needs to be reflected in our budget, our policy, and our leadership.

Here’s the thing about a two-day racial equity and bias training. It isn’t a checklist, and it isn’t enough. A training like the one proposed by councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne and Patricia De Angelis (who I thank for their effort and words of recommendation) should be a spark for those beginning their journey into interrogating their own privilege and bias, and fuel for the fire in those who are working on doing so already.

The work around equity, inclusion, and justice is not comparable to any other work the council does or will do, it underlies all of it, informs all of it, and should be prioritized. It was mentioned in the meeting before the training that asking councilors to attend a two-day session sent a message about the high time commitment of being on council. To be frank, statements like that send a larger message about the perceived importance of this work.

Two days is just the start. Two days is not enough. We need to hold this council and future councils to a higher standard of self-awareness around their own power and privilege, and ensure that bridges are being built from their individual learning and unlearning to the work being done on the council.

For every decision being made by the council, they must ask how it is advancing equity, inclusion and justice in our community. What is the outcome of this training or those like it? Another step in the direction of being an elected body which understands it may not be representative of the community and that its policy is informed by the identities of those writing it.

The ability to use that knowledge to take action to repair where power and privilege caused harm through policy and procedure, and course-correct from where it would happen again.

You know when the right time for this retreat to have happened was? Before councilors were sworn in. You know the second best time? As soon as humanly possible — regardless of how nice the weather is.

We have already seen some of the councilors carrying forward lessons from the training weekend in their work in this week’s council meeting. I hope they continue to do so

Ana Devlin Gauthier lives in District 5, Amherst.