Putney pledges to confront racism

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PUTNEY — Town leaders promised activists and residents Wednesday night that they will do a better job fighting racism in their small Vermont town and in their town hall.

Town Manager Karen Astley, who reposted an "All Lives Matter" meme on her personal social media account recently, again apologized for her actions during the regular Wednesday evening Select Board meeting.

With close to four dozen Putney residents and others listening in to the online meeting, Astley said she was educating herself on racism, and was reaching out to the Putney community to line up training for town staff, as well as for herself. Astley said she was reading "White Fragility," one of the books recommended by the Putney reading club that is tackling racism.

Astley vowed to be "better prepared and more educated" on issues of racism.

"Upon reflection, I regret the post on my private Facebook page repeating a message of All Lives Matter, perceived by many as the lack of support of the Black Lives Matter message," Astley said, reading from a prepared statement.

"I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement," she said, adding that she "did not intend to diminish" the message of Black Lives Matter against "systemic racism and inequality."

"I am truly remorseful for any hurt that I have caused," she said.

Last week, Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County NAACP, confronted Astley and the board about her social media post, and demanded that Putney do better.

Putney is home to Landmark College and several independent and progressive schools, and by its voting record, is one of the most liberal communities in the state.

Mary Gannon, a social justice trainer with the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, a Brattleboro-based statewide organization devoted to social and racial justice, said she wants to help.

Gannon, who participated in Wednesday's meeting, said she has reviewed the video of the meeting on Sept. 2, where Gillom objected to Astley's actions. She said by the body language alone of some board members, there is a lack of respect and seriousness.

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Social media posts criticized Gillom for his anger. The belief that a person of color has no right to anger is another indication of implicit racism, Gannon noted.

Gillom did not participate in Wednesday night's session, but several Windham County social justice activists did, and they took the Putney board members to task for their reaction to Gillom, which they said was an implicit racist message and a discouraging one for people of color who live in Putney. They said they were appalled at some of the community's social media reactions to Gillom's remarks as well.

Josh Laughlin, the acting chairman of the Putney Select Board, said he is concerned that Putney will be viewed as "not a welcoming environment," and pledged that the town and its employees will undergo the training Astley is seeking to line up.

Laughlin said the town wants to "repair the damage" that Astley's posting, and the board's reaction to Gillom, has caused.

Tara O'Brien, of Brattleboro of The Root Social Justice Center of Brattleboro, told Astley that she needed to apologize to people of color in Putney, not a group of strangers at a meeting on a video conference call.

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O'Brien, who said she experienced racism growing up in the Boston area because she is of Asian descent, said Putney officials have a responsibility to address the problems.

Before Gillom appeared before the board earlier this month, the board talked to Astley about her post during a closed-door session, Laughlin said.

"As Karen said, 'This isn't going to end here,'" Laughlin said. "This is going to be a very long and ongoing process."

Laughlin stepped in to run Wednesday's meeting after the resignation last Friday of former Chairwoman Laura Chapman, who spearheaded the creation of the town's Equity and Inclusion Committee. Chapman, who works for Groundworks in Brattleboro, cited demands of her job and caring for her children in the COVID-19 era, as reasons for her decision to leave the board.

But last week, Chapman was visibly shaken by what Gillom said about Putney and the reaction of her fellow board members.

MURAL

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The issue of racism and Black Lives Matter boiled to the surface this summer, when someone spray-painted "Black Lives Matter is Racist" on Main Street. That prompted a silent vigil, attended by more than 200 people. Identical graffiti also were painted in other Windham County towns.

As a result, the Putney community is now getting ready to paint a 200-foot-long Black Lives Matter mural in front of the Putney Central School on Westminster Street Sept. 27.

One parent urged the community to move the mural elsewhere so that children wouldn't be drawn into what could create a "hostile environment." The parent said she fully supports Black Lives Matter, but is worried about protests outside the school.

But members of the Putney school community, including Liz Adams, said they "wholeheartedly support" and welcome the mural in front of the school, and that it sends a strong message of support to children of color.

Laughlin said he suggested putting the mural in front of the school. "It is an educational opportunity," he said.

O'Brien, from The Root, said before the town moves the mural, people should ask the students of color and their parents how they feel about it.

Jaime Contois, who is co-chairwoman of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, said what is happening in Putney is a reflection of a change in the country. "Putney is a microcosm of what is happening," she said, while warning that white supremacists sitting in on the meeting are organizing in Putney.

One person mentioned there were incidents at the Putney fire station, and Laughlin said the board is involved already. "It's an ongoing discussion," he said, that would be addressed either through training or an "education process."

Peter Eden, president of Landmark College, said the college is willing to help the town address the issues with training.

"Landmark is built on the notion, built on the strength, of differences," he said, referring to the college that specializes in students who learn differently.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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