Black Lives Matter flag decision put off until 2023
The Town of Williston now has the draft of a statement on dismantling racism to underpin a coming discussion about the fate of the Black Lives Matter flag that continues to fly on the Town Hall flagpole.
The flag was first raised in the winter of 2021 as a symbol of the town’s commitment to confronting racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The selectboard reauthorized the flag last March while at the same time approving an investigation into how the town can turn the symbolism of the flag into anti-racism action.
The board, in a unanimously approved motion last March, said it would reconsider the flying of the flag at town hall when the investigation is complete.
Last week, a committee led by Williston Community Justice Center Executive Director Cristalee McSweeney delivered the results of its six-month initiative to express the town’s values around anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion. The values statement reads, in part: “Williston is committed to identifying, addressing and eliminating policies and procedures that have contributed to institutional and structural racism. Williston will address this harm through education, community engagement and restorative actions.” (See sidebar for the full statement).
But McSweeney also requested more time — until the end of this year — for the selectboard to revisit its Black Lives Matter flag decision and consider a new way to symbolize the town’s anti-racism efforts.
“Maybe it’s a flag, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s artwork, maybe it’s educational opportunities,” McSweeney said. “Our goal is to make sure we’re not just putting up a symbol, but we are taking actionable steps … The core of the work is about what we are going to do to live up to those values so that everyone in our community feels welcomed, respected and valued.”
Putting off the Black Lives Matter flag decision will also allow McSweeney to incorporate what she is learning at a diversity, equity and inclusion leadership course she is currently enrolled in at Cornell University. That course ends in December.
“We will be revisiting the issue of the Black Lives Matter flag probably in early January,” she said. “That’s when we will be making a proposal to look at how we want to visualize these values. The issue of the Black Lives Matter flag will be on the table for consideration.”
Before crafting the values statement, the committee (called the Racial Equity Partnership) sought input from community members through distribution of a flyer, posting online and sending emails. Reflecting the controversial nature of the subject, several businesses declined to post the flyer. The committee anonymously reported some of their reasons: “This is not the direction we are looking to go in” … “We don’t want our business being retaliated against” … “We can’t take sides — this ‘ask’ would reflect us taking the side of supporting this.”
Other feedback encouraged the committee and expressed support for the work, McSweeney said during last week’s meeting of the selectboard.
After collecting resident input in the spring, the committee got to work writing the values statement through the summer. In addition to McSweeney, the committee includes Pastor Paul Eyer of the Williston Federated Church, former Williston-Richmond Rotary Club President Lesley Murray and Champlain Valley School Board Chair and Democratic nominee for state representative Angela Arsenault, among others.
“It was really heartwarming to have such a committed group of people come together and really think about everyone in the community, and I think that the outcome will bring us to better places. The goal is to make Williston the best we can have it be,” McSweeney said.
The racial equity values statement is on the selectboard’s Oct. 18 agenda Town Manager Erik Wells said.
The Racial Equity Alliance’s goal is to have the values statement inform every aspect of town government “so that we’re really being thoughtful … and making sure we’re constantly looking back at these values so we are holding ourselves and each other accountable,” McSweeney said.