A version of this article appeared on print in our January 2017 issue.
What began as a simple idea for Wellesley’s Board of Selectmen chair Marjorie Freiman has sparked townwide discussions, inter-organizational collaborations, and has unified residents in all corners of the town.
On December 12, the Board of Selectmen, Wellesley’s chief executive board, issued a statement reaffirming Wellesley’s commitment to embracing diversity in town. It read:
“The Wellesley Board of Selectmen reaffirms its position that Wellesley is a town that highly values diversity, dignity and respect for all individuals. Wellesley strives to be a welcoming town; therefore, the Board opposes expressions of hate, intolerance and discrimination. The Board encourages the entire Wellesley community to continue to exhibit caring and supportive actions in support of our diversity.”
The board’s decision to adopt this pledge was inspired by current events reflecting a rise in hate towards the “other” on a local and national level.
“We are all deeply saddened when there is an act of racism or intolerance, and this past year was a bad year for that,” Freiman said. “It seemed around the country that civility has fallen apart.”
While Wellesley’s most recent and visible examples of intolerance came from the high school, including a swastika etched into a computer and the string of racist sentiments released from a private group chat, Freiman felt that the selectmen still must address that tension. “To me, it’s not just a school issue,” she said.
Creating this statement was partially inspired by the town of Natick, which adopted and passed a similar pledge. “Towns and cities are becoming more and more aware that we need to do this [acting on racial injustice] on the local level,” Freiman said. She referenced that Newton has also recently launched an initiative to promote a more welcoming and diverse community.
Adapting Natick’s pledge, the board drafted and, after some editing, approved the statement. Freiman was proud to admit that the selectmen were all in agreement about adopting this pledge, something that did not hold true in Natick.
However, Freiman herself was not entirely sure about whether or not to issue such a statement. “I was conflicted because in terms of social movements, I feel a bottom up, grassroots movement is much better… I didn’t want it to be issued from an executive level down,” she said.
Eventually, though, she felt that she and the selectmen needed to take a stand to ensure that Wellesley would be the inclusive community they aim for it to be. “[We need to say] ‘this is not the Wellesley we stood for election to represent,’” she said.
In conjunction with the issuance of the selectman’s pledge, on January 9, the board held the Annual Board of Selectmen Diversity Program, in which eight panelists from a range of areas in the town. On the panel, Temple Beth Elohim’s member engagement manager, Susan Karon, spoke about Jewish history in Wellesley; Dr. Steve Xia commented on his experiences as a Chinese immigrant; Bongani Musikavanhu ’18 and his father Tendai Musikavanhu discussed their family’s perspective on black South African immigrants in Wellesley and how the racist messages from this summer altered that perspective.
In addition, Wellesley College’s Dr. Robbin Chapman, Associate Provost and Academic Director of Diversity and Inclusion, discussed how to teach individuals about addressing and celebrating race and diversity. High school principal Dr. Jamie Chisum, World of Wellesley President Michelle Chalmers, and Police Chief Terrence Cunningham all remarked on their roles in creating positive race relations in the town.
The board asked the panelists to each respond to a question about how Wellesley has changed and improved in terms of being inclusive to minorities and where they see room for improvement to become more welcoming.
The discussion lasted for over two hours and concluded with questions from the overflowing audience. These questions, comments, and discussions between the audience and panel members spilled out into the hallway and continued long after the official meeting ended.
Despite the wide range of views, and nuances of perspectives, one common thread spun through the panelists’ messages: we need conversations about race.
“The more frightened you are of the discussion, the more racism endures… We need conversations, despite how awkward it feels to address racism. The moment we tire or are fearful of it, is the moment racism will show,” Tendai Musikavanhu said.
Chapman explained the importance of understanding each individual’s story, the context their identity stems from and how conversations, structured or casual, are an important vehicle for achieving that understanding.“One of the most fruitful things in helping people engage is understanding context… understanding intersectionality,” Chapman said. “Certain identities become more salient depending on the context.”
For Bobo, this understanding of how an individual fits into the story of race, gender, religion, or sex comes from having discussions regarding identity. Of these conversations, what he finds most meaningful are the discussions among peers. “[When] students can talk to students, we can form a connection that allows students to express what they really feel is the issue,” he said.
Freiman explained that presenting the space to have these discussions and for Wellesley residents to hear individuals’ stories was exactly what inspired the panel. “Our goal is that people hear stories, ask questions, and are moved to make [inclusion in Wellesley] better,” she said.
As with anything though, talking is just the beginning, much like it is for the selectmen’s pledge.
Part of the action for change can come from the town on an executive-down level. Freiman discussed how, in order to achieve the Wellesley projected in the board’s statement, she feels the town needs more economically diverse housing as well as investigations into “smart growth”. She described this as creating reasonably priced housing near public transportation to build economic diversity.
The other part of action towards change will come from individuals, though.
“The work happening in town from the grassroots is the most important work,” Freiman said at the panel discussion. “Asking people what makes them different is not a top down choice. My idea in making a pledge was setting forth the image that Wellesley stands for. This is why the grassroots are so important.”