“Based on the lived experienced spoken by people of color in Keene, the Committee concludes that racism exists in Keene.”
With those unflinching words, so began the cornerstone opening conclusion of the ad-hoc Racial Justice and Community Safety Committee in its report to the Keene City Council. Following that and its other key observations, the committee laid out a series of recommendations for bringing about change in that opening conclusion. But, while directed to the council, the report’s observations and recommendations provide a roadmap not just for Keene, but for all the region’s surrounding communities and their schools, institutions, employers and residents.
The committee was formed last June by Mayor George Hansel following the widespread outrage and protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody. Charged with making recommendations for addressing systemic or cultural inequities in Keene, the committee held a series of meetings and public forums that culminated in its report. Tellingly, the committee expressed concern that some public participation was deterred by worries of some that their input wouldn’t help effect change or might subject them to racist treatment or criticism. Still, the committee learned enough to reach its stark opening conclusion.
The committee’s work also led it to report three additional key observations: that sources and practices of implicit or unconscious bias must be identified; that more open dialog and community engagement are essential to understanding and addressing racial inequities; and that community education is critically important to disrupt a tendency toward complacency about racial inequity and to broaden understanding of what people of color experience in the community. These four foundational observations are critical to the recommendations that follow in the report, for acceptance of them is essential, as the committee cogently put it, “to the success of any actions taken to advance our community toward equity and inclusivity for black people, indigenous people and all people of color.”
The report breaks down the committee’s recommendations into broad categories of government leadership, public input and community education, public safety, city and community, and education. Many are steps the city should be able to tackle, such as promoting diversity on council committees and boards and in its hiring and other employment initiatives and assigning an administrative role focused on advancing diversity, equity and inclusion. The report also urges periodic surveys throughout the community and its schools and workplaces to measure racial equity awareness and progress and to engage businesses, schools and other institutions in programs to address inequity and improve inclusivity. And it stresses the importance of providing avenues for open, safe and, as necessary, confidential conversations about local racial justice experiences.
In the area of public safety, the recommendations also sensibly emphasize maintaining the Keene Police Department’s voluntary enhanced training accreditation standards and call for greater public education and outreach about those standards and its use of force policies. Surprisingly, though, the recommendations include no mention of police body cameras. That’s already a subject of discussion by the council, and the committee’s views would be important to the debate. And the report recommends the city support increased community mental health services to assist police, but was unclear whether it considered such ideas as creating social-worker staffing within the department, a proposal coming before Winchester’s town meeting.
Given the interconnectedness of social, work, health care and so many other aspects of life in southwestern New Hampshire, to achieve many of the recommendations — and for meaningful change to occur — schools, employers, residents and others in the city and the surrounding communities must be engaged in the process, and Keene should lead the way. To that end, the committee’s initial recommendation is for the council to articulate a clear public statement of the city’s commitment to racial equity and inclusion and to adopt community-wide, measurable goals, and the council should do that swiftly.
The committee says it has presented its report with “sincere concern and optimism,” stating that “Keene is a beautiful and safe community, but the existence of racism and implicit bias cannot be denied.” Overall, the committee’s goal for its recommendations is to provide a racial equity lens through which that can be seen and to build a sustainable foundation for advancing racial equity. In delivering a comprehensive and promising roadmap, the committee has achieved its goal. It’s now up to the city and all of us in the region to look through that lens honestly and do the necessary work to achieve greater racial equity for all in the area.