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Williamstown's DIRE Committee Divides Workload
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:01PM / Friday, August 07, 2020
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Mohammed Memfis guides the second meeting of Williamstown's new Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee Monday formed three working groups to help organize efforts around different tasks before the nascent panel.
Keeping with the members' desire to focus on evidence gathering as the nine-person committee gets up and running, all three of the initial groups are tasked with building up the knowledge base.
Bilal Ansari, Aruna D'Souza and Jeffrey Johnson will be looking to form connections with other grassroots groups in town and beyond who are looking to address issues of equity and inclusion.
Gina Coleman, Drea Finley and Kerri Nicoll will work on developing strategies for the DIRE Committee to engage the broader community, particularly with an ear toward hearing about the experiences community members have had with exclusion or racism.
Andrew Art, Mohammed Memfis and Jane Patton will look at collecting information about current policies and procedures of town agencies, including the police, to see what policies the full committee wants to study in greater depth.
Art, who practiced administrative law in Washington, D.C., before returning to his hometown three years ago, talked at the group's first meeting in July about the need to develop a formal procedure for requesting information, and he returned to that idea on Monday.
"The ultimate goal is to provide actionable recommendations to the Select Board and provide input to the other town bodies that are working on these issues," Art said. "In order to do that in rigorous way, I suggested last meeting that we follow an administrative law principle, reasoned decision making, which requires the information to be on the record.
"So I just want to push again for having the information requests that we send to other committees to be put down in writing, at least as a starting point for gathering data and information from those other groups. The process of us going through that as a group will help us refine what it is we're trying to look at, and it will also give the other groups specifics so that they're not scratching their heads about what exactly we might be after."
The working group charged with identifying local organizations is hoping to find potential partners for the committee and ensure that it is not duplicating efforts.
"I'm wondering if one of the first things we could do is starting to compile a list of organizations that exist and the work being done," D'Souza said. "I know that there are, especially in the wake of Minneapolis, a number of citizen committees that have formed around questions of policing, for example.
"Connecting with them and seeing what's there might be a useful exercise. I'm sure a lot of people on this committee have much more of a sense of what those groups are."
D'Souza said there are groups in Pittsfield from whom the DIRE Committee could learn lessons and alluded to at least one other group closer to home as a potential partner.
"I know there is a parent group working with the School Committee on diversity, equity and inclusion issues," D'Souza said. "I imagine they're already starting to do some of that work. So, for us it would be information gathering as much as anything and working with that parent committee.
"At least in terms of the schools, there is some real work going on there. As with our group, the question of how much of it sticks will be the proof in the pudding, or whatever they say. But I know there are some people working on that."
In terms of strategies for gathering outreach from the public, the committee tapped into the professional expertise of its members; Finley and Nicoll are trained dialogue facilitators.
Their task will include finding ways to include not only current Williamstown residents but others in the conversation.
"My question is, how are we defining community?" Ansari asked his colleagues. "I want to define it in its broadest terms. For example, I tend to like the community members who responded to one of the things that was written up about me, and they said, 'I grew up in Williamstown, but I no longer live in Williamstown. I live in North Adams' … maybe because they can't afford it or they moved on or whatever.
"They're still a part of our community. I don't want to exclude them."
In other business on Monday, the committee formally agreed on its name. The Select Board, which created the panel this summer, left it up to the group to decide on its own name and finalize its objectives.
Members of the panel agreed that the words Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity fit the committee's mission, and they liked the acronym DIRE, which hints at the urgency of the committee's work.
Memfis, who set the agenda and led the discussion at Monday's second meeting, also agreed to continue leading the committee for the time being, though he was disinclined to take the title chair and instead talked about a stewardship model.
In accepting the role, he encouraged his fellow committee members to give him input on upcoming agendas.
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