SOUTHINGTON — Town officials are considering ways to combat racism that could include forming a group similar to STEPS with representatives from Southington’s religious, business, education and government sectors.
The Town Council and the Board of Education plan to form groups following complaints of discrimination from minority residents and students at a school board meeting earlier this month. Southington Women for Progress, along with area NAACP chapters, brought suggestions for combating racism to the school board at that meeting. In December a Snapchat video circulated online in which a Southington High School student threatened black students.
Southington Women for Progress held a discussion on race Wednesday, which was attended by six Town Council members and two Board of Education members. Facilitators from the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford led a discussion on why “color blindness” doesn’t work. The discussion started with the group’s definitions of race, racism, equity and other terms as well as ground rules for the evening’s conversation.
Victoria Triano, a Republican councilor, said she wants to form a group that would begin meeting in late February or early March to start changing the town’s culture. She attended Wednesday’s meeting and found it helpful but also wanted to take action.
“We must attack a problem within a culture systematically and using every sector within our community,” Triano said. “As policy makers in this community, there’s more responsibility on us to ensure that the process continues.”
She cited the model of STEPS and said a group to combat racism could focus on small, attainable goals that build toward a greater acceptance of multiculturalism in Southington.
STEPS, Southington Townwide Effort to Promote Success, is funded with a federal grant and combats substance abuse among youth.
School Superintendent Tim Connellan is also working on forming a task force following the board meeting earlier this month. Board members said they want students and parents to have an opportunity to share concerns and experiences.
Erica Roggeveen Byrne, founder of the women for progress group, said Wednesday’s community conversation on race was scheduled before the video and that the discussion was part of a series.
“We were expecting 20 people,” she said Wednesday night. The event drew more than 70 and the group had a waiting list.
Next month Southington Women for Progress will hold a meeting on talking to children about race.
Southington Women for Progress officials asked members of the media to leave before attendees began the discussion. Cheryl Hilton, a Southington Women for Progress member, said town officials might be more likely to speak honestly and openly without media in attendance.
Chris Poulos, a Democratic councilor, said Wednesday’s meeting was a good chance for him to reflect on his views of race as well as to hear the experiences of other residents.
“It’s really been important for me when there’s a situation like this to go out and listen to what the residents think and say. It guides me in my thinking,” Poulos said. “No one was passing judgment. Everyone was honest.”
Even though Poulos believes most town residents are trying to be good and kind, comments can still exhibit unrealized biases.
“There is the possibility of an unconscious micro aggression,” he said.
Hilton said Wednesday’s meeting was encouraging but was more skeptical about the education board’s efforts. She questioned who would be on the task force set up by the school district.
“My concern is that the people they’re putting on the task force are not the right people,” Hilton said. “If you don’t have different voices in the room, that’s how you got into this position in the first place.”