Guest columnist Julian Hynes, Marisol Pierce Bonifaz and Amrita Rutter: Sunrise Amherst’s message for the new Town Council

  • From left, Amrita Rutter, Marisol Bonifaz, and Sita Rutter, all high school students with Amherst Sunrise, lead a group of protesters against the pipeline from TD bank up to Bank Of America on Dec. 8, 2021. Gazette file photo

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Editor’s note: Members of Sunrise Amherst sent the following letter to the new Amherst Town Council.

We are Sunrise Amherst, a youth-led climate movement working to combat climate change and achieve racial justice. Sunrise Amherst is the local hub of a national organization called The Sunrise Movement (https://sunrisemovement.org). Our hub made a significant impact on the November 2021 Town Election with nine canvassing events, collaborations with Defund413 Amherst, The Progressive Coalition of Amherst, and moved hearts, voices, and minds.

On Monday, Jan. 3, we requested the new Town Council stand up for the health and well-being of all people by prioritizing our community’s ideals and basic needs. Sunrise Amherst acts on an intersectional platform, recognizing that all issues are interconnected; therefore, we expect advanced racial equity measures, government transparency and accessibility, full school funding, affordable housing and environmental justice initiatives.

The implementation of racial equity is a goal that we should be thinking of among the first and foremost issues. As a town, we should be taking steps to provide everyone with the chances to receive the best opportunities they can, regardless of race. Sunrise Amherst encourages intersectionality as a group, and we believe that Amherst should be looking out for all its citizens.

We will do this by urging the new Town Council to reduce spending on the Amherst Police Department and as alternatives to that aspect of the public safety department support CRESS and the new CSSJ. We expect the Town Council to increase funding to mental health and rehabilitation services. Sunrise Amherst would also like the Town Council to fund low-income housing facilities aimed toward families rather than students, and support public transportation. Sunrise Amherst would be grateful if these ideas were considered.

Climate justice is a main priority of Sunrise Amherst. In this day and age it is an undeniable fact that the climate is changing and we thus hope and expect that the incoming council will work to address climate change locally, in a just manner. We envision a town and town council that prioritizes climate justice by repairing and adding bike lanes and sidewalks to major arteries in Amherst.

Secondly, supporting public transportation including public transportation access (i.e. increasing PVTA bus stops). As well, preserving historic buildings and renovating them to be carbon neutral and affordable, while modestly developing our town, sustainably, with community centered goals.

In addition, transitioning to electric school buses and other town vehicles when possible. Additionally, enact bylaws that encourage rooftop solar while preserving trees, forest land and natural habitats. Lastly, increasing green infrastructure, through public parks, conservation land and shade trees.

Sunrise Amherst understands that all of these needs and others can not be met at once, but urges every elected town councilor to listen to youth voices, consider the needs of our climate, understand how these issues are intersectional and can be addressed thanks to our hard working town staff and devoted community members.

Decisions about funding are a large part of the Town Council’s responsibility, and we feel that there are certain places this funding could go that would support the well-being of the community more than others. This includes prioritizing funding for schools, infrastructure (especially environmentally-friendly infrastructure), and mental health resources over unnecessary amounts going to institutions like the police department. It must be a priority to fully fund and support the CRESS program, as well as pushing for equity among departments in capital spending (especially focused on the inequity around the APD).

Infrastructure funding could be in the form of supporting paving and plowing programs for safe roads, promoting green infrastructure such as solar panels on public buildings, funding affordable housing plans aimed at families, and supporting the DPW.

Finally, COVID relief is an extremely important thing that must be aimed for in the coming months, including funding to support local businesses impacted by the pandemic.

We want our town to be one that listens to and accommodates the people living in it. A true democracy is one where everyone is able to understand and communicate their needs to those who govern them. We feel the town must do a better job at this. Amherst has let us down in this area during the public comments in town budgeting meetings. We were among the many residents who shared our personal experiences in the fight for police reform.

There were some meetings where the public comment went on for several hours and still no one was listened to. This is acceptable. We are excited to see how this new council responds to public comment. As a much more diverse group of individuals, we are hopeful that the diversity will make the council stronger.

Being a town councilor is a time-consuming job and we would like to see town councilors being paid a salary to increase diversity in the future. This would hopefully allow more minorities and people from underserved communities to run for office. This term, we would like to see you making an effort to hear the voices of your constituents by creating spaces for them to speak. Create public forums or reach out individually to your constituents. We would like to see you publicize events, provide information on decisions, create accessible meeting spaces, being transparent in your decisions, and making the Amherst website more accessible. We have no doubt that you as a council can meet these expectations and we are excited for a more transparent and responsive Amherst government.

We will push the new Town Council to stand up for these ideals, both the candidates we endorsed and the candidates put into office by other organizations and groups of people fighting equally as hard for the things they believe in. We will continue to hold the Town Council accountable for achieving the most they can do, as we believe that it is impossible to settle for anything less in the times we live in today.