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Williamstown Select Board Appoints Members to Diversity Panel
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:18AM / Thursday, July 16, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday appointed eight community members and one member of its own panel to serve on a newly formed advisory committee on diversity and equity.
 
The board decided this summer to form a committee in response to community concerns about racial justice growing out of the nationwide conversation following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
 
Twenty-five residents either applied or were nominated by their fellow townspeople, Select Board Chair Jane Patton reported.
 
"In the entire time I've been on the Select Board, that has never been the case," Patton said about the high rate of volunteerism. "I would like to thank everyone who put themselves forward and other folks who nominated community members."
 
Bilal Ansari, Andrew Art, Gina Coleman, Aruna D'Souza, Drea Finley, Jeff Johnson, Mohammed Memfis and Kerri Nicoll were named to the committee. They will be joined by Patton, who will fill a seat designated to a member of the Select Board in an effort to facilitate communication between the two committees.
 
The nine-person committee will be the largest standing committee in town government. But it could have been even larger.
 
"I also want to speak to the folks who were not selected to the 'core committee,' for lack of a better term," Patton said. "You still probably likely be asked in one way or another to contribute, perhaps by serving on a working group, subcommittee, or in some other fashion deemed necessary by the committee. Also depending on the length of time the committee goes on, some folks may roll off.
 
"Please know that we just had an incredible group of people come forward. I was really touched by that."
 
The first nine people on the committee were appointed after the board unanimously approved a one-page charter for the group drafted by Hogeland.
 
"Therefore, the Select Board establishes an advisory committee to address [inclusion, diversity and equity] through the development of forums for open and safe discussion of these issues, and for the development of actionable recommendations to improve the attainment of these goals in Williamstown for all residents," the charter reads in part. "This effort is designed to help make sure that Williamstown is a safe and inclusive community."
 
The board decided to leave the naming of the committee up to its membership when it convenes. It also left the committee's charge fairly open-ended.
 
"We give them a fairly broad mandate," Hogeland said in discussing the charter he drafted. "The only specific is to have a safe listening forum. … There's an active listening phase, which is important. The other thing is actionable recommendations.
 
"To me, it doesn't mean, 'Let's make the town a better place' or 'Let's assure equality.' I mean, 'Let's do something with affordable housing' and make a specific recommendation of what that is. I think we've all been on committees or seen plans which have a mixture of high, idealistic things with no action you can take compared to others which are very specific and detailed."
 
Hogeland and the board are hoping this new committee's recommendations fall into the latter category.
 
It is asking the new group to report to the Select Board at least once a month and to provide a formal report of some kind at the end of its first year.
 
The end of the first year also may be the point when the equity and diversity committee decides how it wants to be structured going forward.
 
On Monday, the Select Board discussed whether it wanted to make the initial appointments to the diversity panel one-year or two-year appointments and whether it wanted to stagger those seats so that the committee — assuming it continues indefinitely — has continuity as new members cycle through.
 
But ultimately it decided to let all the appointments be for one year with the understanding that the initial members might stay on in whatever form the committee ultimately takes.
 
"I had pictured a situation where everybody goes for the year and part of the year-end re-evaluation process is the [committee's] format, membership and the like and what sustainability is," Town Manager Jason Hoch advised the board. "Appoint everyone for, call it a year … with the understanding that at the end of the year, part of the check in is: What does this look like going forward? Three, five, seven, nine people? And focus on institutionalizing whatever happens after that year."
 
One thing is for certain, the Select Board does anticipate the to-be-named committee extending beyond its first year.
 
"I personally think this is something that is going to be part of our fabric indefinitely," Patton said. "I can't begin to think about when sunset time is when we haven't even had the sun rise yet."
 
As for the surplus of applicants for the committee, Jeffrey Thomas had a suggestion.
 
"I wanted to bring up the topic of diversity on town boards and committees and the lack thereof," Thomas said toward the end of a two-hour meeting. "I think we can all do better at having more diversity — age diversity, race diversity, more diversity of perspective. And I think we have a great opportunity here with so many people interested in serving on the diversity, equity and racial justice committee. … I would hope they'd consider serving on other boards and committees in town.
 
"I'd also like to challenge this board, the Select Board, of doing a better job of reaching out to people in the community who might not know there are opportunities to serve on town boards and committees. I think it's incumbent on us to help create more diversity at town hall."
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