District hosts race community forum

Town manager Don Turner and superintendent Ann Bradshaw are pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 29 after part one of two community forums on race, hosted by the Milton Town School District. The easel in between them here showcases guided notes written by moderator Jen Knauer. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

Around 25 people gathered for the first of two community forums on race last Wednesday night at Milton Elementary and Middle School.

Some shared their personal or familial experiences with racial discrimination while others tried to reconcile how the issue permeates Milton.

The forum came after a surplus of allegations and accounts of racism in the district emerged last summer. Parents and administrators said they left the school on Wednesday, Nov. 29 feeling Milton is moving forward in addressing the issue.

Part two of the forum occurred Wednesday, Dec. 6, after the Independent’s press deadline this week.

“Milton is ready for change,” said parent Emily Hecker, who recently moved from a diverse community to Milton with her husband and two white children.

With the help of moderators Susan Terry and Jen Knauer — and large Post-It easel pads — attendees narrowed what the problem is in Milton and how it can be tackled. A majority of the crowd was comprised of town and school officials. The half-dozen or so parents expressed concern more of their peers weren’t present.

In one room, Terry steered conversation with interim police chief Steve Laroche, district director of curriculum, instruction and technology Lynne Manley; school board members Rae Couillard and Greg Burbo, recreation coordinator Kym Duchesneau, an early childhood special educator in the district, a retired academic social psychologist who grew up in the south, three white mothers and one black father.

Down the hall, superintendent Ann Bradshaw, town manager Don Turner, Milton Inclusion and Diversity Initiative representative Veronica Valz, United Church of Milton pastor Jeff Cornwell, district data assessment coordinator Tammy Boone, town library director Susan Larson, a white mother of a black daughter; and Harjit Dhaliwal, a father and Sikh man originally from Malaysia, worked with Knauer. The moderators strategically split the two groups.

Attendees enjoyed dinner in the library before Terry began the conversation, noting how talking about race is extremely difficult, and sometimes people’s wording is off. She encouraged people to allow others space and time to accurately portray their thoughts.

Many present made note of their worry and discomfort talking about race.

Three questions guided the forum: Why is the topic of race important to you? What do you want the equity committee, administration and school board to understand about the issue of race, and why? What questions or issues related to race should be considered in the work ahead, and why?

The 90-minute discussion was just a start, Terry noted. By the end of last week’s session, community members were most interested in how to continue the conversation after the second forum.

Topics and inquiries included how to effectively and thoughtfully address a relative or peer who makes racist remarks, rather than angrily and abruptly calling him or her out on the spot.

Parent Deb Robinson, whose daughter is Chinese, said it’s important to give teachers the tools and education to know how to respond to racial overtones heard in school.

Boone, a school administrator, said she’s “digging deep” to educate herself and found a few readings that helped her understand the difference between the Black Lives Matter and White Lives Matter movements.

She shared these articles with a few coworkers,  who then passed them along to others, creating a chain of education, Boone said.

MIDI rep Valz, whose children graduated from Milton High School, asked if race and culture could be intertwined in district curriculum from kindergarten on. Bradshaw said the district’s equity committee is exploring how to implement such lessons.

This education is important in Milton homes, too, as racism stems from what kids learn at home, parents said.

The lone black father present last week said he’s determined to do whatever he can to make sure his first-grade son does not face the same brutal discrimination he did as a kid.

School board member Burbo said he joined the board to help address racism. His black son, he said, was treated too leniently as a Milton student because of the color of his skin.

Hecker shared that a Black Lives Matter flag was recently stolen from her home. Often, the mother sees a truck sporting a confederate flag racing down her street. She said it’s not young kids perpetrating these acts.

The question, Valz said, is how to get people involved who don’t have a family member affected by race. Prior, Terry said throughout her work, she finds people join the uncomfortable conversation once there’s a precedent, like this forum.

“The discomfort is part of it,” Valz said. “There’s no way to remove it.”

Dhaliwal said telling stories of discrimination helps educate people on how racism affects people of color every day worldwide, but also in Milton.

A predominately white community, Milton and its residents don’t have much exposure to other cultures and races. Town manager Don Turner, a lifelong resident, said the equity committee must understand people are naïve. For people who grew up in town, still live here and have long lineage, they often don’t know their actions or words are racist, he said.

“I know a lot of really, really good people,” Turner said. “But I’ve heard a lot of them say stuff where I [gasp], and think ‘I can’t believe you just said that.’”

Educate people without belittling them is a good next step, Turner said.

At the second session, the two groups came together to report what they documented the week prior. Then, they were tasked with analyzing what they’ve learned thus far and identifying topics to address in future conversations about race in the school.

Town and school officials expressed gratitude for everyone coming to the table to work toward change.

“We need to send a bold message that everyone is welcome here,” Hecker said.

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