Town-wide training addresses bias, diversity

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BRATTLEBORO — Town staff and Select Board members will soon be getting trained about understanding bias and welcoming diversity.

"It's exciting to be at the moment when the work that has been ongoing now these last few years, between some of us in town government and the community we serve, to be brought in to now be something we work on together as an entire town government," said Town Manager Peter Elwell.

On Tuesday, the Select Board authorized Elwell to hire Dr. Dottie Morris and Dr. Mary Gannon to provide the training for about $14,343. The town received six proposals — one was more than twice as expensive and another would train someone from the municipality to train others rather than have sessions for everyone with the facilitators.

Elwell said the town has been working on promoting racial and social equity for the last three years. The Select Board has put a special focus on it, including related action items in a list of goals.

In 2017, Select Board candidates had been asked why no people of color were on town staff. The question had come from Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, who helped Elwell sort through proposals for the training and make a recommendation with the town's Human Resources Director Sally Nix.

Reed's inquiry led Elwell to recommend actions the board later approved including adding an HR professional to town staff; providing implicit bias training for all town employees and the Select Board; changing the town's recruitment practices; considering social equity in all governmental decisions, increasing collaboration with local schools on matters of diversity, inclusion and equity; and supporting groups in town who work on those issues.

"Our collaboration with various individuals and organizations in the community began immediately," Elwell wrote in a memo about the training.

He attended the annual Vermont Vision for a Multi-Cultural Future conference in November 2017. The town became a sponsor of the conference for the next two years.

In March 2018, Town Meeting representatives approved a budget that included a human resources director. Elwell said the town helped organize and participated in the first Bridge to Brattleboro event, which provided college students of color with opportunities to learn about employment opportunities and quality of life in the community in April 2018. The following month saw the town collaborate with the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union's Diversity and Equity Committee by having a community-wide Diversity Day celebration on Elliot Street.

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At an interfaith service on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in January, Elwell had been invited to address attendees. Diversity Day activities were expanded this year. Nix joined town staff in June. In September, proposals were sought for training.

In November, Elwell attended the National League of Cities annual conference. He said sessions involved talk of racial equity in local government.

"It is clear that this work is now a priority for many municipal governments and that we can call on resources available from the NLC, the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and our municipal colleagues as we continue on with the work in Brattleboro," he wrote in the memo.

Elwell noted that Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald has continued to stay involved with the Community Equity Collaborative and its Diverse Workforce Development Committee, a relationship that preceded related talks with the board. Library Director Starr LaTronica also was credited for her leadership on these issues and her collaborative work with the community.

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The town-wide training will be provided two women who have more than 50 years of experience combined, according to their proposal.

Morris has been the associate vice president of institutional equity and diversity at Keene, N.H., State College since 2008. She is on Keene's Human Rights Committee and College/City Commission. She also was appointed to the New Hampshire Governor's Council on Diversity and Inclusion.

Gannon developed a plan for equity and diversity for Burlington, where designed and implemented training sessions on implicit bias and inequity for city employees. She is now working on a similar project in Hartford, Vt.

In their proposal, Morris and Gannon called diversity "the natural order of life."

"The ability to completely embrace diversity is key to innovation and creativity," they wrote. "Social structures are rooted in assumptions, values, beliefs and perspectives that go unexamined. These unexamined structures lead to honoring some ways of being while devaluing others. This process can be conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional, but the outcome and impact is the same — some people are disenfranchised, excluded or harmed."

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The goal with the training, they wrote, is to move toward "co-creating a welcoming, vibrant and healthy environment for all." They proposed making a work group to develop a diversity and equity plan.

The first phase will see Gannon and Morris conduct a needs assessment, which will shape the training sessions. The next part will involve one personal and professional development session for the board and senior town administrators, and five sessions for all permanent town employees.

Post-training meetings will bring Gannon and Morris together with the work group to evaluate the results. That element of the proposal had stood out to Elwell, Nix and Reed, making it the recommended choice.

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin said she had been glad to attend a recent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dinner where Gannon and Morris had spoken.

"And I'm looking forward to them working with the town," she said.

Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr described the dinner as well attended and the energy as "fabulous." She said only good things can come of the training.

Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel said the town has been making good progress.

"I see this as a real outcome of a big, democratic push from our community," he said. "It's a positive thing, and it feels like we're going to get a lot of bang for our buck here."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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