NEWFANE — Newfane is joining about 39 other Vermont communities in signing the Declaration of Inclusion, which “condemns racism and welcomes all persons, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age, or disability, and wants everyone to feel safe and welcome in our community.”
“As a town,” the declaration states, “we formally condemn all discrimination in all of its forms, commit to fair and equal treatment of everyone in our community, and will strive to ensure all of our actions, policies, and operating procedures reflect this commitment. The town ... has and will continue to be a place where individuals can live freely and express their opinions.”
On April 4, the Newfane Select Board unanimously supported signing the declaration. According to vtdeclarationofinclusion.org, the goal is to get it “adopted and implemented by each of Vermont’s 246 towns and cities.”
The overarching goal of the project is to raise awareness about the importance of diversity and highlight that Vermonters aren’t fully aware of systemic racism in their majority white state.
“Distressed by recent catastrophic events unfolding across the country relating to human rights, justice, and equality, Bob Harnish, a long-time resident of Pittsford, decided to do something,” states the website. “His concern led him to Al Wakefield, a former businessman in the Rutland area, who shared similar distress and felt a need to do something ‘hands-on.’ Together, the pair began crafting an overarching statement that would build on Vermont’s agreed upon uniqueness, its long-standing reputation for being a leader in addressing injustices, and ensure that events occurring in Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and other states do not happen here. They realized that, at the same time, such a statement could attract people with myriad skills and traditions to Vermont to live, work, and raise families.”
Harnish and Wakefield found the statement they were seeking in the Declaration of Inclusion, which was first adopted by the town of Franklin in 2020. The site says the intent of the declaration is to show that “Vermont is a welcoming community ... of people who will treat them fairly, provide encouragement and support for their interests ... [and] will bring the full resources of the state, cities, and towns to ensure their well-being and security.”
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group of West River Valley Mutual Aid requested Newfane support the declaration.
“Newfane was one of the first towns in Vermont to make a statement affirming our commitment to diversity and inclusion,” the group said in a letter to the Select Board, referring to a project spearheaded by the mutual aid group. “It has been on our town website since it was adopted in September 2020.”
Newfane’s statement from 2020 “condemns hate speech, prejudice, and acts intended to induce fear in any person based on their identity.” It came after roadways in that town as well as Brattleboro, Dover, Jamaica, Putney, Rawsonville and South Londonderry were spray-painted with anti-Black Lives Matter messages.
“We are a community of diverse backgrounds and opinions, and we draw strength from it,” Newfane’s statement reads. “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and feel safe in our beautiful town.”
The working group said the list of declaration supporters includes 39 towns that have made similar statements, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Association of Planning and Development Agencies, and the governor’s office on behalf of the state of Vermont.
“The list of towns adopting the Declaration of Inclusion is receiving wide press coverage and is intended, in part, to promote business and tourism,” the working group said in its letter. “It also may be useful for grants and attracting cultural opportunities in the future. Most importantly, it emphasizes for residents and visitors alike that everyone is welcome in Newfane; and that together we reject hate and prejudice. Newfane’s values make us proud to live here, and to be raising our children here.”
A map of towns and cities supporting the declaration includes Bennington, Manchester, Pawlet and Springfield, but none from Windham County.
Brattleboro Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said the declaration hasn’t come up in his community yet. He plans to talk with the town manager about the prospect.
State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Windham-4, of Putney, is part of the Vermont Interfaith Action’s county-wide campaign supporting the declaration.
“We are planning to put this before towns, churches and civic groups” such as the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, he said.
Working the Putney Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, Mrowicki estimates the declaration could be brought before the Select Board in about two weeks. After that, he said, his group intends to “start a process of community conversation to affirm our values and how we can be more welcoming and inclusive as we stand against oppression of all sorts.”
“I see it as a way to bring people together at a very reactionary time in our history,” he said.
Both the Bellows Falls Village Trustees and a joint meeting of the village trustees with the Rockingham Select Board discussed the declaration, but made no decision.
Susan Smallheer contributed to this report.