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Old Lyme selectmen refuse to consider racism resolution

Old Lyme -- Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal has once again failed to gain support from the rest of the Board of Selectmen for her proposed resolution that would identify racism as a public health crisis here.

Nosal, a Democrat, told the board's two Republican selectmen Monday that she was hoping the town could take the lead in bringing the national issue to the shoreline. That's why she said she presented a draft resolution to the selectmen last August and has continued to bring up the issue since.

"I'm just surprised we haven't at least had a discussion or formed a committee to look at the merits of this," she told First Selectman Timothy Griswold and Selectman Christopher Kerr on Monday. 

The draft resolution submitted by Nosal cites racism as a cause of segregation and inequities in areas such as economic stability, housing, education, physical environment, food security, employment, health care and criminal justice and policing.

The proposed resolution was based in part on a template created by Hartford-based Health Equity Solutions that is being considered by other communities across the state. New London and Colchester are among the 21 municipalities identified by Health Equity Solutions as having declared racism a public health crisis.

During Monday's public comment period, Democratic Town Committee Chairwoman Christine Gianquinto, who said she was speaking as resident, said, "The resolution reflects the growing body of academic work that confirms centuries of racism in the U.S. has had a profound and negative impact on communities of color. COVID-19 and police brutality, both which disproportionately affect people of color, have spurred a recent movement to address racism as a public health crisis."

Last August, after Nosal first introduced the resolution, Griswold said the tone of the resolution implies the town has a race problem, according to meeting minutes.

At a meeting earlier this month, Griswold reiterated that initial sentiment when a resident wondered why the resolution has not yet been acted upon.

"I don't subscribe to the idea that we have a public health crisis in Old Lyme," he said. "It seems to me, as I said at the beginning of the process some time ago, that it's been a very negative way that it characterizes the townspeople, and I just don't buy it."

Kerr had no comment. When Nosal subsequently expressed interest in talking about the resolution during the "other business" portion of the agenda, Kerr said he had "nothing to discuss."

Steve Jungkeit, senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme and a member of the Lyme-Old Lyme Partnership for Social Justice, said "it is time" to take the lead on issues surrounding structural racism.

In a guest commentary submitted to The Day, Jungkeit invoked two separate police killings in Minnesota that span a heightened period of conversation about systemic racism.

"The murder of George Floyd and the murder of Daunte Wright, together with the public reckoning that such violence has unleashed, has created an opening toward greater honesty, empathy, compassion, and justice. Mr. Floyd's death, and Mr. Wright's, is nothing short of a tragedy. Indeed, it is more than that – it is a national emergency," he wrote.

Jungkeit, who said as many as 160 enslaved people lived in Old Lyme, connected some of them to local landmarks: "At least three enslaved people lived on the site where the Congregational Church now stands. At least five enslaved people lived in the house that now serves as the parsonage. Several more lived on the site of the town library. More still lived at the site of what is now the Florence Griswold Museum."

The Lyme-Old Lyme Partnership for Social Justice formed last September with a focus on education reform, affordable housing, police accountability and partnerships with New London.

The partnership earlier this month hosted a virtual conversation based on the Georgetown Law Center's Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement (ABLE) program, which encourages police to intervene when another officer's conduct may cause harm. Old Lyme Resident State Trooper Matt Weber said during the video conference that he has started conveying ABLE intervention tactics to the small department and would extend the training to the town's 10 auxiliary summer officers.

The resolution submitted by Nosal recognizes racism as a social system that unfairly disadvantages specific individuals and communities based on how they look. It specifies that Black, Native American, Asian and Latino residents are more likely to experience poor health outcomes due to inequities in economic stability, education, environment, food and access to health care.

People of color in the state bear "a disproportionate burden of illness and mortality including COVID-19 infection and death, heart disease, diabetes and infant mortality," according to the resolution.

The resolution comprises eight action steps, including identifying racism as a public health crisis, focusing on fostering a "justice-oriented" town government, promoting equity in local and state policy, improving data collection, forging partnerships to confront racism, engaging "actively and authentically" with communities of color where they live; and identifying clear goals and objectives to assess progress.

After Monday's meeting, Griswold said he "takes umbrage" with the idea that Old Lyme has a public health crisis called racism, but said he doesn't have a problem with some of the action steps.

He said that if 21 municipalities made such a declaration, that means the rest of the state's 169 cities and towns still have not.

He recognized that Jungkeit and the First Congregational Church have "taken up the cause big time" in Old Lyme.

"And I think that's the appropriate place for that conversation," he added.

Nosal said after the meeting that she plans to bring the proposal back to the Board of Selectmen at a future meeting.



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