Education was front and center Tuesday as Keene’s Racial Justice and Community Safety Committee hosted its second public forum on how city residents and institutions can work to prevent racism locally.
The forum, held via Zoom, invited members of the public to offer suggestions for how Keene schools can promote fairness and opportunity for all students and what programming they’d like to see added to the curriculum. Speakers at the meeting, attended by about a dozen people, suggested increasing students’ exposure to different cultures and using more literature about the experiences of those who have faced racism.
The city established the committee earlier this year after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police. The committee was tasked with examining ways Keene can work to prevent discrimination. Its first forum, held Oct. 29, tackled the topics of laws, policy and policing.
“We’ve invited various guest speakers and subject-matter experts into our discussions, and we’re planning to present our recommendations to the City Council early next year,” committee Co-Chair Rick Van Wickler told participants in Tuesday’s forum. “Your input this evening is extremely valuable, and it will help us to formulate recommendations that are specific to Keene and that are likely to promote racial equity and social justice in Keene for the long term.”
Sarah Benning, a Court Street resident, recalled one of the committee’s earlier meetings when community members were invited to share their experiences with racism and ideas for possible improvements. She said several Keene High School students at the meeting had shared stories of discrimination and described a lack of support from the school administration.
Benning suggested implementing specific anti-racism policies to go along with Keene High’s existing anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies.
“Can’t address a problem you can’t name,” she said. “And it feels like it’s not being a named problem.”
Resident Sandra McDonald, who described herself as a Black woman, said when her daughter was a student at Keene High, exposure to African American culture was “sorely lacking.” She suggested adding new books to the curriculum that help shed light on the diverse experiences of people of different racial groups.
She singled out “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson, about an attorney who defends a Black man who has been wrongfully convicted of murder.
“Reaching younger children would be great. I think for middle school children, exposing them to books is a great, great way to go,” McDonald said. “I think ‘Just Mercy’ is a book that should be mandatory reading.”
She also emphasized the importance of familiarizing students with many different cultures. One way to do so, she said, would be field trips to places such as Embassy Row in Washington, D.C., when the embassies have an open house and guests can experience the cuisine, art and other cultural elements of their respective countries.
Another of her ideas was to create a new racial justice committee made up of students, where they could discuss similar issues as the city’s committee, but from their own perspectives.
Mary Gannon, a Winchester resident, agreed it’s important to involve students in the conversation. She also thought it would be wise to discuss how to deal with racial justice questions at a time when schools are preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think our students have a lot to say about what they see,” she said, “because I think there is a lot of concern with that generation about what is being handed to them.”
Keene Board of Education Chairman George Downing said during the forum that racial justice is a topic that is very important to him. He said that while the district has focused on addressing situations as they arise, there’s much more work to be done to tackle the broader problem.
“The schools here have worked very hard on responding to bullying and responding to incidences of discrimination,” he said, “but have done very little work on addressing the systems that cause that. And that, to me, is what is exciting and where we can really make a difference in our community.”
The next forum will be held Dec. 2 from 6 to 8 p.m., and the topic will be social justice and community. Information to access the Zoom meeting can be found on the city’s website.