Op-Ed: When ‘Checking a Box’ is Not Enough

How Easthampton is not living up to promises on racial justice.


By AKINE

For the past nine months, A Knee is Not Enough (AKINE)—a BIPOC led community organization—has worked to make Easthampton a community that is not only safe and inclusive for all, but one that upholds the values and promises espoused by our city government. Watching various city committee meetings, one would get a sense that Easthampton is home to those that value equity, diversity, and the voices of many not just a selected few—but as you peel back the layers, you will find that these calls for equity and inclusion never amount to more than performative displays rather than authentic, actionable strategies. These performative gestures are a product of the city’s inability to hold itself accountable and a city council that is unable to de-center itself. 

A lack of accountability within city government has been the biggest barrier we have faced as an organization and seems to be a constant in defining how the city functions. Some examples:

  1. During City Council public speak time, President Peg Coniff often changes the rules to lessen the amount of time residents are allowed to express their perspectives. Public speak is an important part of public participation and one of the few chances residents have to publicly voice their opinions and concerns. This issue has happened during School Committee meetings as well, including an instance where folks that spoke against having a school police officer did not have the same opportunities to speak compared to those who were in favor. 
  1. City Council, School Committee, and the Police Department do not respond to emails. A regular excuse for not responding to emails is that they violate “open-meeting laws”. Not only is this a gross mischaracterization of open-meeting laws (responding to constituent emails is not a violation of the law), but also an example of the City Council weaponizing rules to circumvent their accountability to city residents. 
  1. On January 10th, AKINE asked the Easthampton Police Department to make a statement against the January 6th insurrection and verify that no EPD personnel participated in the attack against the Capitol. Neither request was acknowledged. 
  1. Current City Councilors are unaware of their own privilege or that city government does not work the same for everyone. For example, during the same meeting on January 20th that open-meeting laws were used as an excuse to not respond to emails, Councilor Rist proclaimed that one simply had to “call Chief Alberti” if they needed anything. This not only reflects his unwillingness to understand that how the city functions for someone that has been on the City Council for over 20 years is different from a resident’s relationship with the police department, but also fails to understand that there are those within the community that would not feel comfortable calling the police chief. Furthermore, if the police department does not respond to our emails, why would they respond to our calls?
  1. On Dec 20, 2020 during a live Zoom event and through a subsequent email, AKINE informed the City Council and School Committee that there are several students within Easthampton that have not been able to access their schools lunches (mostly due to transportation issues) or reliable internet which has been impacting their ability to attend zoom classes.  We received no response from anyone except two city councilors—Homar Gomez and Lindsey Rothschild. With the help of those councilors we canvassed selected areas of Easthampton and found that more than 40 kids have not been able to access their lunches (this number has been increasing steadily since this initial canvassing). When we brought this to the attention of the rest of the council and School Committee, the City Council responded by calling Superintendent LeClair into a public meeting to respond to questions around school lunches and internet accessibility (there has been no public follow up to this meeting). After a community campaign and the knowledge of this inexcusable oversight became more public, School Committee Chair Cindy Kwiecinski finally responded to our December 20 email, claiming that If someone had given me a number that needed meals I would have gotten right on it. If someone wants to call me please do”.  This email was sent January 21.
  1. During our initial canvassing of Easthampton regarding the need for lunch delivery and access to reliable internet, rather than exploring how this scathing oversight happened, Councilor JP Kwiecinski (whose wife is chair of the School Committee) and Councilor Erica Flood demanded that we explain our operations, how we found information, and criticized the volunteer efforts taken up by AKINE.
  1. When it became clear that the city was not going to address this issue, AKINE developed a volunteer-based school lunch delivery system and sought the help of city employees since they are the only ones eligible to drive the city vans. At first, a few city council members did step up and helped with deliveries. We noticed that the only councilors that were assisting were the women councilors and the one councilor of color. This is a pattern that is common in community service, so in a weekly internal newsletter where we praised and thanked those that did help us, we also pointed out this fact. This led City Councilor Erica Flood to email us to accuse us of tokenizing her as a woman for helping deliver lunches. We explained that we were not tokenizing her, but rather were highlighting the issues with cis-white men not helping the community through service work (we even embedded articles within the newsletter that articulated the issue!). Councilor Flood did not respond back and simply stopped volunteering. Councilor Coniff also said she would no longer participate because she was volunteering within the city in another context. It then came to our attention that Councilor Owen Zaret and Councilor Flood coordinated a campaign within city council to discourage other councilors from volunteering because of what we wrote in an internal newsletter. This is not the first time city representatives have coordinated a campaign against AKINE because of our efforts to hold them accountable, but in these instances both Councilor Zaret and Councilor Flood are putting their own fragility ahead of the needs of the community. Their attempts to sabotage our initiative would result in over 60 kids not getting their school lunches.  

As elected officials our City Council and School Committee should not react defensively to criticisms or concerns of city residents, but rather use them as an opportunity to reflect on their work and the needs of the city.  The city has a long history of refusing to accept accountability for their actions (or inactions) and as residents of Easthampton we need to push them to do better because we deserve better.  The City Council cannot authentically pass ordinances to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, ordinances to make Easthampon safe, or ordinances that suggest they support the lives of Black, Brown, and queer folks without doing the work that it takes for those ordinances to have a meaningful impact. And just how being accountable to residents of Easthampton is part of their job description, it is our responsibility as residents of Easthampton to make sure our elected officials are following through with their promises. AKINE is committed to the city of Easthampton and we will continue to fight for a safe, inclusive space—however—can the same be said about our current elected officials?

AKINE

akneeisnotenough@gmail.com

http://www.akine.org


To read The Shoestring’s feature on AKINE, click here.

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