UNCASVILLE, Conn. (AP) — In addition to preparing for snow storms or the new school year, Connecticut municipal leaders were urged Tuesday to ready their communities for a different type of challenge: how to manage conflicts over race, gender identity, religion and national origin.
The lesson comes at a time when there’s been an increase in hate crimes incidents across the country and in Connecticut, strife over mask-wearing and vaccine mandates, and a push for greater racial equity in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
“Sometimes people don’t realize it, but a lot of the issues related to equity, on the ground level, are also related to the way municipal government functions and the way local schools function,” said Richard Porth, special projects coordinator for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “So there is a role in all of this. And I think it’s a meaningful role.”
CCM, which opened the first day of its two-day convention and expo on Tuesday, launched a series of public regional discussions last year on the long-simmering issue of racial equity following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. That has led to the development of a “tool kit” for cities and towns to help them promote racial equity in their communities and other initiatives.
CCM, a private entity that represents the interests of municipalities, is holding monthly training sessions, periodic roundtable discussions and monthly action items for municipalities to meet.
On Tuesday, CCM invited representatives from the federal Community Relations Service, a division of the U.S. Justice Department that was formed in 1964 and dubbed “America’s Peacemaker," to speak about their work. As impartial mediators, they work with community groups and help resolve conflicts and respond to alleged hate crimes.
“There's no panacea that we can tell a community, ‘If you do this, you’re going to resolve conflict and eliminate hate.' That does not exist. I wish it does, but we can help you face it," said Michael David, a conciliation specialist with the Community Relations Service. The organization offers a variety of programs, from helping to bring communities together after a deadly police shooting to assisting citizens in identifying issues within their city, town, or school and coming up with solutions.
Some Connecticut communities are already doing some of this work on their own.
In Coventry, a predominately-white town of approximately 12,500 residents in eastern Connecticut, the town council recently adopted a resolution that denounced racism and recognized past and present racial injustices. The community is also planning "community conversations” on race next year and to educate local residents on issues such as implicit and explicit bias.
“We need to just talk and feel comfortable to talk with our neighbors,” said Annemarie Sundgren, the towns' human services administrator who is helping to head up the initiative. She said the effort began after no students of color from nearby Hartford participated in the town's school choice program this year. She said Coventry is considering surveying both local residents as well as Hartford residents to learn more about their perceptions of the community.
Canton First Selectman Robert Bessel, who attended Tuesday's presentation, said there haven't been any high-profile incidents of racial and ethic bias in his town but he senses “there's work to be done" in the community of roughly 10,200 in Hartford County.
“There are some things that we just need to talk about, work on. How can we have more equity? How can we include more (people)?” said Bessel. He said greater trust needs to be fostered in the town, as well as a “cultural shift” where people “stand up and say, ‘this does not happen here.'"