BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro has become the latest town to adopt the Vermont Declaration of Inclusion, joining 63 others in a quest for fairness.
“We’re all working together on the same ends, and we’re coming at it from a different direction,” Fred Breunig of Brattleboro said at the Select Board meeting Tuesday. “But now towns and local organizations and faith communities, which have adopted the declaration, are committing to continuing to work towards that vision.”
Joining the meeting virtually were Bob Harnish and Al Wakefield, who crafted the declaration after becoming upset by racial incidents occurring nationwide. Franklin became the first town to sign it in 2020. Other towns in Windham and Bennington counties that have adopted the declaration include Athens, Bennington, Manchester, Newfane, Pownal and Putney.
Harnish and Wakefield “wanted to be proactive in Vermont and have put out a system of making sure that fairness and acceptance and diversity are primo,” Breunig said. In 2021, the pair got the governor to make the second week of May Inclusion Week with a proclamation that mirrored the declaration.
Breunig, who serves on the Vermont Interfaith Action board, said the Vermont Chamber of Commerce supported the declaration and hosts the website vtdeclarationofinclusion.org, containing information about the project. Vermont League of Cities and Towns and Vermont National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also stand behind the effort.
In the meeting room Tuesday with Breunig were local leaders the Rev. Lise Sparrow and Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. They have been involved in projects aimed at improving inclusivity for years, Breunig said.
“And I think it’s great that the town of Brattleboro has already begun this work,” he added.
Brattleboro’s hiring of a human resources director in May 2019 and participation in diversity, equity and inclusion training were commended. Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow called former Town Manager Peter Elwell, who retired at the end of last year, “a huge proponent of this work.”
Before gaining approval from the board, Breunig read the proposed declaration that says the town “condemns racism and welcomes all persons regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age or disability, and wants everyone to feel safe and welcomed in our community.” The board voted 4-0 to adopt the document and amend it to also include socioeconomic status in that sentence.
“As a town we formally condemn all discrimination in all of its forms, commit to fair and equal treatment of everyone in our community and will strive to ensure all of our actions, policies and operating procedures reflect this commitment,” the declaration states. The town “has and will continue to be a place where individuals can live freely and express their opinions respectfully.”
“I think this is a good way of bringing the issue forward,” Brattleboro Select Board member Liz McLoughlin said.
Kurt Daims of Brattleboro suggested the community’s pride in its inclusiveness might have “gone over the edge into a new kind of thing.”
“To my mind, the state of democracy here in Brattleboro is poor,” he said. “Not because of racism, but because I think Republicans and Trump supporters and hunters and abortion foes and generally conservative people are an oppressed minority here.”
Daims, who works on climate and policing issues with his group Brattleboro Common Sense and described himself as a “liberal/progressive radical,” said he has seen “rampant disrespect and scorn for Republicans in public debate.”
“Your political identity is not just some very neutral, benign box where all things are acceptable,” Board Vice Chairman Daniel Quipp said. “Much of the discrimination that’s here in this country right now is from people with political ideologies. So whilst I would say broadly, people of all political persuasions are welcome, I would say it is not a completely sort of level playing field.”