Anti-racism group in continued talks with East Lyme officials
East Lyme ― More than a year and a half since its initial request, a grassroots group dedicated to local anti-racism advocacy continues to ask officials to acknowledge racism as a public health crisis.
Since the spring of 2021, the Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity (SCORE) has been engaging town officials in its mission to make “people of color feel heard, safe, and welcome.”
The Board of Selectmen last month again declined to take action after the group’s presentation on its request for a resolution officially identifying racism’s threat to public health.
The draft language submitted by SCORE was based on a template from Hartford-based Health Equity Solutions, an organization that advocates for equitable health care access in Connecticut.
Twenty-two cities and towns in the state, plus the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, have authorized documents making the link between racism and public health. Officials in towns including Old Saybrook, New London and Norwich passed resolutions, and Gov. Ned Lamont last year signed into law a sweeping bill addressing the effect of racism on public health at the state level.
SCORE’s draft resolution in East Lyme comprises eight action steps that include addressing racism in local policies and in town operations, improving communication so more residents have a voice in governmental decisions, and promoting efforts at all levels of government to “dismantle systemic racism.”
Anneliese Lapides, director of community action for SCORE and a medical student at the University of Vermont, told selectmen via Zoom that seemingly “small decisions” at the local level can lead to the kind of institutional racism the resolution seeks to acknowledge and correct.
She gave the example of a nameless small-town board of selectmen putting out a survey to local business owners to get input on public transportation options.
“However, the survey was distributed to businesses generally visited by only one subset of the town's population, meaning that other groups were not accurately represented in those responses and thus did not have an adequate say in that new policy regarding public transportation that is going to impact them as well,” she said.
It becomes a public health issue when a lack of public transportation leaves certain populations without easy access to medical appointments and care, according to Lapides.
“This just really demonstrates how certain small decisions lead to structural racism, and leaving people’s voices out of important policies that impact their health and impacts their lives,” she said.
She pointed to equity in town policies as a key component of the resolution. And equity is different from equality, she said.
Equality means everyone is given the same resources, according to Lapides, but equity recognizes each person has different circumstances and requires different resources and opportunities to reach an equal outcome. Lapides said that is because not everyone starts with the same advantages.
She suggested town policy makers use a checklist of questions to review their decisions with “an equity lens.”
“Who does this decision affect positively? Who does it affect negatively? How might it ignore or worsen existing disparities,” she said of some of the questions.
“If you haven't gone through racism and discrimination, these are not automatically going to be at the forefront when reviewing policy,” Lapides said.
Selectwoman Anne Santoro, one of two liaisons between the Board of Selectman and SCORE, questioned why officials should review policy solely through a lens of racial equity when there are other marginalized groups to consider.
“So if we have a lens of one thing, we may need multiple lenses,” Santoro said.
Nicki DeSardo, SCORE’s director of programming and an educator, disagreed.
“The lens is equity. Equity for all,” she said. “We represent racial and social equity for our group; however, we’re talking about the equity lens for all groups.”
Selectmen did not directly address the group’s request to form a subcommittee to develop ant-racist policies for consideration.
First Selectman Kevin Seery, responding to concerns from SCORE member Serena Valentin about again leaving a selectmen's meeting without seeing any action taken, said he’d like to come back “with some type of next step” in early January.
“We won't agree totally on everything, but we do agree you have a topic that needs to be addressed and we’re willing to work with you and move forward with it,” he said.
Lapides this week said she remains optimistic.
“I’m feeling hopeful something will come out of it,” she said. “We’ll see when and what that is, but I’m positive.”
She said the issue is as important as it was when her organization first brought a draft resolution acknowledging racism as a public health threat to selectmen over a year and a half ago.
SCORE members during that time have learned a lot about how to approach their advocacy efforts, she added. She described them as open to ideas that don’t necessarily involve authorization of a resolution.
“Goals evolve over time and I think it’s important to adapt and meet people where they’re at,” she said. “If the resolution doesn’t ultimately get passed but we’re still able to meet with them, work on specific policies, work on different action items, I would say any progress is something to be proud of and something I think we would be happy with.”