OPINION: Why the press was asked to leave Southington event

OPINION: Why the press was asked to leave Southington event

In the past few weeks, Southington Women for Progress has received criticism for asking the press to leave its January 23 community conversation. As founder, and as one of those who made that determination, I would like to take responsibility for that decision, and explain our thinking behind it.

When the conversation was planned back in November 2018, we were expecting a maximum of 25 people to participate in a frank, open dialogue around the harm caused by people aspiring to be “colorblind” as it relates to race.

As we all know, events in Southington put a media spotlight on race and racism in our town, which led to significant interest in our event as a forum for the community to come together. Regardless of the number of participants, we hoped for the intention of the conversation to remain the same — to provide a brave space for participants to reflect on and discuss ideas that may have been new and uncomfortable. We wanted all participants to be able to be vulnerable and open, which is much harder to do with your words being recorded.

As we adjusted our planning to accommodate what turned out to be almost 80 attendees, we struggled to balance two priorities that felt in conflict with one another.

In light of the intense interest in the topic, we wanted the event to be as open as possible including by moving venues, paying for additional facilitators, ensuring that anyone on the waiting list was told they could attend, and not turning away anyone at the door. However, we also wanted to create a space where people felt “safe” to express themselves, as described above.

While I take openness and transparency as it relates to public meetings that take place under the Freedom of Information Act very seriously, Southington Women for Progress is a private group and this wasn’t a setting where policy was being discussed, formulated, or voted on, nor was it planned or intended for the purpose of discussing matters relating to official business — instead it was a chance for ALL residents, including those who happen to also be elected officials, to open their eyes to experiences outside of their own.

In addition, to respond to a specific criticism raised by the Record-Journal regarding our conversation having a quorum of Town Council members — while registration was required, only four Town Council members pre-registered for the event; we were not aware until just before the event began that the majority of members would be in attendance.

According to a conversation with the Public Education Officer of the CT Freedom of Information Commission, Town Council members are permitted to attend meetings of other groups without it becoming a gathering governed by FOIA, as long as they do not conduct business there. I, and more than 70 other witnesses, could attest that this did not take place. In fact, council members stayed afterwards to speak with community members and group members about the impact of the event on them personally.

To address this issue moving forward, as a group, we have since developed guidelines for the press that strive to balance transparency and the need for spaces where challenging conversations can occur. They are on our website (www.southingtonwomenforprogress.org), and re-printed below:

“Community conversations are intended to create a safe space where participants can feel comfortable tackling challenging topics in small groups without fear of being judged or quoted. Press is invited to attend and listen, and may ask people for quotes, photos, or interviews before or after the event, but there is to be no recording (video, audio, or in writing) of the actual community conversation. Press may report on the general themes of the discussion, but specific comments/reflections and attribution is off the record, unless permission is granted by the speaker(s).

”Community forums, which are larger panel conversations with local experts and a Q&A session, will be fully open to the press, and recording of all kinds is encouraged.”

We hope that all Southington residents, elected and non-elected, will continue to take part in community conversations that challenge white supremacist systems and can transform us into an anti-racist community that is truly welcoming to all.

Erica Roggeveen Byrne is founder of Southington Women for Progress.


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