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Town formalizes racial equity partnership

Black Lives Matter flag raised at Williston Town Hall

 BY JASON STARR

Observer staff

On the day former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the killing of George Floyd — a tragedy that led to an eruption of protests nationwide about systemic racism — Cristalee McSweeney of the Williston Community Justice Center announced the structure of the newly formed Williston Racial Equity Partnership.

The partnership has come together to lead the town’s efforts to address institutional and systemic racism. Its first initiative was to urge the Williston Selectboard to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at Town Hall, which the board approved in March. At that time, the group was an informal collection of like-minded residents.

On Tuesday, McSweeney said that she and former Town Manager Rick McGuire, who is the current president of the Williston-Richmond Rotary Club, have interviewed people interested in serving on the partnership’s steering committee and chosen the committee’s makeup. The steering committee met for the first time last week. Applicants who were not selected were assured that their contributions would still be sought on the partnership’s sub-committees.

McSweeney will serve as the partnership’s director. Carrie William-Howe will serve as task manager and Dennis Francis and Jay Tanden will be sub-committee leads. Others on the steering committee are McGuire, former state representative Debbie Ingram, Williston Federated Church Pastor Paul Eyer, Pat Brown, Ingrid Mangold and Lisa Braden-Harder. 

The group plans to meet monthly and develop a strategy for addressing racism in Williston. It will also create a mission and values statement, McSweeney said. 

“This is so critical, and I think it’s going to be hard to keep the momentum going,” selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said. “The (Black Lives Matter) flag is the easy first step. The next step is continuing to make progress. It’s going to take perseverance.”

McSweeney said addressing systemic and institutional racism in the community is overdue. 

“I wish I could say we will erase racism, but at least we need to acknowledge that we do have a lot of it in our community and that we need to work together to live up to our community values,” she said. “I’m excited about the work. It’s not easy, but I think we have a great group of people and we’ll work our best to live up to the expectation of addressing the harms that exist in our community.” 

Gov. Phil Scott had a similar message in a statement after the Chauvin verdict Tuesday. 

“Although today’s verdict brings some justice, there is still so much more work to achieve a truly just society,” he said. “We must acknowledge that, over many generations, systemic racism was built into our social systems, our economic systems and everything in between … It will take our nation and our state years of committed work to achieve real and lasting equality for every American.”

Town Manager Erik Wells has determined that on days when flags are ordered at half staff, the town will move the Black Lives Matter flag to the Williston Fire Department flagpole and place a sign displaying the Black Lives Matter message on the town hall lawn. Town administrators have found that there is not enough space for the flag, which is displayed under the American and Vermont flags, on the town hall flagpole when flags are at half staff.

The Black Lives Matter flag is due to be removed in June, unless the selectboard acts to extend the display.