Board of Selectmen members listen to comments Wednesday morning. (Photo by Julie Estep)

by Julie Estep

WESTPORT — Amidst burgeoning controversies and concerns surrounding racism in Westport, the Board of Selectmen approved an official town statement Wednesday morning on diversity, equity and inclusivity.

With several members of the public expressing concerns about the issue and voicing support for the statement, its approval comes just weeks after an anonymous group called Westport Parents 06880 began planting seeds of concern about the Westport School District’s equity study.

Many people in town believe the group is disseminating veiled racist rhetoric, while others argue its trying to encourage the school administration to be more transparent in its efforts to examine the impact of racism in the schools.

Not a Response to Group

First Selectman Jim Marpe said this statement was not brought forward directly to respond to that group, but rather something the selectmen had been planning to formalize since the summer, though he acknowledged the town has seen a noticeable level of controversy of late regarding race and diversity that is having an impact on the community as a whole.  

Approval of the statement includes the board’s pledge to “denounce any efforts to divide and instill fear in our community based upon characteristics, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, ability, or LGBTQIA+.”

Board of Education member Youn Su Chao said racism is very real in Westport, as evidenced by some heartbreaking experiences at school board meetings.

“I think the lowest point for me was at a board meeting and someone rejected the experiences of our students and undermined their stories — their true experiences in this town — claiming that they were motivated by scholarship money,” she said.

“That was the lowest I’ve ever seen anyone go in attacking our student body,” she said, “and this is the kind of stuff that demonstrates that there is racism in this town.”

Statement of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The selectmen’s statement says the town is “committed to fostering a civic culture that provides equitable respect, belonging and treatment of all” individuals, groups and organizations.

It pledges a commitment to “maintain a relentless focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the long-term social health and viability of the Town,” including “proactively identifying and dismantling systemic inequities and ‘othering.’”

Among a dozen other specifics, it pledges to apply “an equity perspective to all decision-making including the municipal budget,” to implement “proactive hiring initiatives to increase racial diversity of the town employee base,” and to support “proactive equity initiatives established within the Westport Public Schools.”

Selectperson Melissa Kane said she believes the message is an accurate statement of what the town and the board is doing in progressing forward.

“I still am extraordinarily concerned with the group, the anonymous group, that is bringing falsehoods and disinformation and a racist perspective to what is going on in our school district,” she said. “I think that we as leadership of the town should not in any way allow it to happen in the town.”

Harold Bailey, chair of TEAM Westport. (Photo by Julie Estep)

Playing a key role in helping the selectmen draft the statement, TEAM Westport Chair Harold Bailey said for Westport to become a genuinely welcoming community, there has to be a collaboration with key organizations and the town overall.

Bailey said that collaboration is how Westport will sustain itself as a new awareness of history is growing.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-136) told the board he believes the value of the statement will be assessed over time, calling it a good first step.

“I only wish that this statement was not coming out in the midst of this fear-mongering effort because it makes it seem as this is a reaction to that, rather than something we should have been saying all along,” he said, adding he hopes the community will be held accountable to achieve the sentiment of the statement.

“It matters to young people”

State Rep. Stephanie Thomas (D-143) said she spends a substantial amount of her time in Westport addressing the level of fear in the community with residents of all ages.

“I thank Westport and this entire community for putting this statement down on paper,” she said. “It matters to young people what our leaders say.”

“If the town I lived in when I was young put out a statement like this, it would’ve changed everything,” she said.