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Leading the charge against racism in Waterford

Waterford — The Black Lives Matter movement has a new, local offshoot.

Three Waterford High School Class of 2018 graduates — Luther Wade, 19, is Black and a junior at Springfield College, Brianna Jones, 20, is white and a junior at Southern Connecticut State University, and Zach Schmidt, 19, is white and works as a private contractor for a construction company — have started a new anti-racism activist group, called B.A.G4CHANGE, in their hometown.

The name represents Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, three unarmed Black people who were killed in recent months — Floyd and Taylor by police, Arbery allegedly by white, civilian gunmen. Their deaths have sparked ongoing mass demonstrations and a nationwide reckoning with racism and police brutality. 

Local activism

During an interview with The Day at the Clark Lane Middle School entrance moments before a June 14 protest in Waterford, a middle-aged Black man approached Wade and Jones and asked them if they belonged to or ran an official organization, and how they planned to continue their progress. Although Jones and Wade say this man was not the impetus for the group, Wade called him “the final nail in the coffin.”

“I don’t find it offensive or too load-bearing when older people say that it needs to start with us. They say that because it’s true. If we don’t care ..." Wade said.

“Then the generation before or after us won’t care, either,” Jones cut in.

The formation of the group and its corresponding social media channels on Facebook, on Twitter and Instagram came because of what the three see as a national crisis. 

“I went to the protest because Brianna and Luther were my friends in elementary, middle and high school, and I wanted to be there to support them,” Schmidt said of the Walk for Justice that Wade and Jones organized and attracted about 400 people. “Luther contacted me and a couple others saying he was going to start this group and asked if anyone wanted to join, and I felt immediately, yes, I want to be part of this change. If I didn’t help to make this change, I was part of the other side.”

“Silence equals compliance,” Jones added.

Schmidt said the three make a good team, which was apparent during an interview, when each person would expound on what the last said. They said they are best suited to affect change in Waterford and surrounding areas through their own work and by backing other local activist groups.

“Because we’ve been to school here, and we’ve been here most of our lives, we know what happens and the expectations we’re held to in this town,” Wade said. “We have the most voice here.”

“We can make a bigger impact here because we’re well-known, we have better resources,” Schmidt continued.

Wade and Jones said they were overwhelmed by community support for the June 14 protest. When they left to set up water stations on the route, a few people were at Clark Lane. When they returned, hundreds were pouring in.

While the Black Lives Matter movement is mostly without central leadership, it has spawned local activist groups like B.A.G4Change throughout the country.

“I definitely consider us as stemming from Black Lives Matter because if we do reach our goals, Black lives are going to matter as much as white lives in this town,” Wade said.

Jones said local communities know best how to address local racism.

Group goals

B.A.G4Change has a lengthy list of goals and demands pertaining to Waterford Public Schools and other parts of town.

Those include: 

  • Make Black history courses a graduation requirement.
  • Make it so all Waterford Public Schools have at least 25% of employees who identify as Black.
  • Hire more school psychologists and advertise their office hours.
  • Diversity training year-round for all staff.
  • Hire Black guidance counselors.
  • Ban the showing of the Confederate flag in Waterford.
  • Redistribute state tax revenue away from police departments to Connecticut residents below the poverty line.

Jones said there are too few school psychologists at the high school. Wade said he didn’t know the school had any until after he graduated. He asked how a white guidance counselor could relate to issues a Black student faces.

"When you have someone who’s white and 60, and I’m struggling with people calling me the hard r, why in my life would I come to you?” Wade asked. “I don’t care that there’s only 13 Black students, there should still be a Black guidance counselor and a Black teacher.”

Superintendent Thomas Giard spoke said the school system employs six psychologists, six social workers and seven guidance counselors. At the high school there are 1.5 psychologists, two social workers and four guidance counselors.

Giard said the primary role of a school psychologist in a public school district is to serve special education students “but they also support other students in crisis.”

He included a demographic breakdown of the schools staff: 94.89% are white, 2.75% Hispanic or Latino, 1.38% African American, 0.79% Asian and 0.20% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

Giard also highlighted efforts by the district to recruit minority staff by strengthening ties with historically Black colleges and universities. He called increasing diversity among staff a “top priority."

“Having served on the state’s Minority Staff Recruitment Taskforce for two years, the number of minority candidates in teacher preparation programs remains well below minority representation in Connecticut,” Giard wrote. “Certainly we remain open to other ideas about recruiting a more diverse staff and welcome the input.”

Giard discussed an act passed in 2019 requiring boards of education, starting in the fall of 2022, to offer a Black and Latino studies course for high schoolers. He said he anticipates this course being approved next school year. The state has not mandated the course as an education requirement, though the Board of Education can decide to do so.

“One of the outcomes of the recent events is the renewed emphasis that school districts need to examine topics such as implicit bias at a deeper level,” Giard wrote. “We need to expand our professional development training opportunities to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. In recent weeks, it has been powerful to see our staff, parents, and students step forward and say ‘We can do more. We must do more. And I am here to help.'”

According to Giard and First Selectman Rob Brule, the Board of Education’s policy does not allow offensive images, such as the Confederate flag, at schools. Brule said the town does not allow the display of the Confederate flag on town property, though banning the symbol everywhere in town would be difficult due to the First Amendment.

Handling critics

Despite the strong showing at June 14’s protest, the activists say they have faced criticism in town.

“There’s definitely some negativity regarding the fact that we’re white,” Jones said. “But if we’re not working together, then what do you expect to happen?”

Schmidt said he’s had people ask him why he joined the group, since he is white. “The comments have not bothered me at all, they’ve boosted me,” he said. “You can’t just join and ride the wave. It’s something you need to be committed to.”

Wade said he thinks it's important that Jones and Schmidt are willing to be part of this group.

“When they look at me, they see a human being; when I look at them, I see human beings,” Wade said. “Yes, there’s a color difference there, and we acknowledge and understand that, but we still treat one another how we want others to be treated.”

The three activists have publicly denounced what they see as local examples of racism, such as former Cohanzie Fire Chief Todd Branche’s comments on Facebook or the alleged discriminatory attitudes of Frank and Barbara Sinnett, owners of a Mystic toy store.

“If we see injustice in our community and surrounding towns, we are going to point it out and post it,” Wade said. “This is not a personal attack, it’s against the injustice they showed. It’s not us telling you to attack that person or judge them. What we’re doing is informing. These are the same people who say these issues of racism and police brutality do not pertain to this town.”

Schmidt said the struggle against racism is perpetual.

“Once we do reach these goals that we’ve listed, it doesn’t end there,” he said. “From these goals that may seem far now, we’ll move higher, until we get to that point where we’ve made the change we need. It’s a never-ending, everlasting thing.”


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