Waterford's resident-led social equity and inclusion group holds third community dialogue
Waterford — Ten residents gathered in the public library's meeting room Monday night to respectfully share their thoughts on the town's diversity, affordable housing shortage and racial disparities.
Laurie Wolfley, trained facilitator and member of Residents for Inclusion and Social Equity, led the dialogue, asking questions based on two reports: Waterford's 2021 Equity Profile compiled by DataHaven in August, and the state Department of Education's "report card" on the town's school district.
The participating residents agreed to take turns answering a question, speaking one at a time for two minutes and adhering to confidentiality about another's shared personal experiences.
Wolfley prefaced the dialogue by saying Waterford is a town of 19,571 residents, 20% of whom are people of color. She added that in the past 10 years, the town's population has increased by 0.28% and the white population has decreased by 7%. She asked residents their thoughts on the decreasing white population and the town's diversity as it stands.
Many said they did not see the town as diverse, with some admitting to not knowing how that could change. One resident said she was a teacher and would like to see children exposed to a more diverse staff.
On the topic of the town's school district, Wolfley asked residents how the lack of staff diversity might impact students. Two residents said the staff does not necessarily match the student body's diversity but it is important that teachers expose their students to diverse guest speakers and literature. Another resident added that that should not deter the district from sourcing a more diverse staff and administration when there are openings.
Drawing from the Equity Profile statistics, Wolfley said 26% of Waterford residents are cost-burdened, meaning they spend at least 30% of their total income on housing, and 10% are severely cost-burdened. Residents considered how the town could assist those on the brink of homelessness or if there are enough housing options in town.
Most of the residents acknowledged there is a need for affordable housing in town. One resident said there are not enough long-term rental options, multifamily homes and ways to help teachers and first responders so they could become homeowners.
Giving their final thoughts on the overall dialogue and how might members of the community come together to address racial disparities, some residents said having more conversations like this would help. One resident said she doesn't know if most people in town want to gather to change things, as they would rather not deal with it.
Waterford's RISE is a group of about 18 community members — spanning in age from about 17 to 87 — all people who live in town and are "committed to very transparently addressing the topic of social justice and equity in town," said Wolfley, a professor at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus. She said this was RISE's third community dialogue, an effort to connect with members of the community as the group continues to form a mission statement and goals.
On Monday, Wolfley said the group formed in the wake of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. Some members of RISE were originally members of a town-sanctioned Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, but the group was disbanded in September when its hired consultant, Elizabeth McGee, said she had not received confirmation from First Selectman Rob Brule about her continued work with the town.
Brule at the time took responsibility and said it might have been a mistake to not have allowed such a committee to form organically, as it is doing so now.
Wolfley said those members did not give up easily and wanted to continue the work that was started.
Juanita Durham, a member of RISE, attended Monday and kept track of time as each resident spoke. Durham said RISE members meet virtually on Zoom every other Wednesday. She said the group has been discussing ways to reach other members of the community. She said it has talked about finding ways to make the community center accessible to all ages and also possibly collaborate with the high school to speak with the youth, hearing their ideas and thoughts on the community.
To join and be apart of RISE, Waterford residents can email wtfdRISE@gmail.com.