East Lyme — The Board of Selectmen on Wednesday raised numerous objections to a draft resolution on racism and public health that was brokered by new First Selectman Kevin Seery and a local, grassroots social justice group.
The wording was similar to documents identifying racism as a public health crisis that already have been authorized in 22 cities and towns in the state, plus the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Officials in towns including Old Saybrook, New London and Norwich passed resolutions, and Gov. Ned Lamont in June signed into law a sweeping bill addressing the effect of racism on public health at the state level.
The issues were raised locally by the grassroots Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity, known as SCORE. Seery described members of the group as committed to their beliefs and willing to talk — as is he.
He’s been involved in the conversation since the group first proposed the resolution in April of last year.
“The one thing we kept making sure we did is, no matter what, keep talking,” Seery, a Republican, said. “Because we want to hear their input and address their concerns.”
SCORE was formed in 2020 as East Lyme for Black Lives Matter. It emerged following the death of George Floyd, who was killed by then-Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Anneliese Lapides, a town native who is a student at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine and SCORE’s director of community engagement, said in a phone call Thursday that there are profound disparities in health outcomes among people of color.
“Not everyone has equitable access to that right that they have as a living, breathing human being,” she said. “Everyone deserves to be able to live healthy lives and so whatever we can do to actually make that a reality, I think, is important.”
The American Medical Association’s House of Delegates in November 2020 approved a policy denouncing racism as an urgent threat to public health. According to Ledge Light Health District Deputy Director Jennifer Muggeo, the health district also considers racism a public health crisis and has put the issue at the center of its plan for improving the overall health of the community.
Selectman Dan Cunningham, a Democrat, on Wednesday told his fellow selectmen the draft resolution was created to show that the community as a whole is concerned about the issues brought forth by SCORE. He worked with Seery and the social justice group on what he described as “negotiations” about the wording of the resolution.
According to Cunningham, passing a resolution shows East Lyme is “a place that is receptive to all communities, all ethnic groups, all races; that we are a town that respects people.”
The resolution is based in part on a template created by Hartford-based Health Equity Solutions, an organization that advocates for equitable health care access in Connecticut. It comprises eight action steps, ranging from fostering a “justice-oriented” community, to “dismantling racism” as it affects town services, to solidifying partnerships with other organizations at the local, state and national levels.
Seery and Cunningham were given the go-ahead by former First Selectman Mark Nickerson back in April to form an “unofficial subcommittee” to look at ways of enhancing equity and inclusion in the community, according to meeting minutes. SCORE during the previous meeting had given its presentation with the stated goal of getting a resolution passed declaring racism a public health crisis.
The draft resolution never came up on the agenda during Nickerson’s administration. Seery was sworn in on Dec. 6, bringing with him a commitment to a continued conversation on the issue.
The issue of racism has been a high-profile one at East Lyme High School this year, manifesting in incidents in the girls’ bathrooms that included verbal and then physical assaults against a student, who was accused of making racist statements online. Videos of the incidents were shared on social media. The situation underscored racial tensions at the school that students say have been ignored by the administration. In November, roughly a quarter of the high school’s students walked out of class to protest what they described as school officials’ failure to denounce racist statements and actions.
Over in neighboring Old Lyme, former Democratic Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal brought up the idea of a similar resolution 24 times in a roughly 1.5-year span, asking repeatedly for discussion and ideas for compromise. It never came up for a vote on the three-member, Republican-dominated board.
The other four members of East Lyme’s six-member Board of Selectmen expressed various reservations about the draft resolution.
Unaffiliated member Rose Ann Hardy — a former Democrat who ran last year under the Republican banner — said she didn’t believe racism itself is a public health crisis. Republican William Weber was troubled that the resolution addressed race and not other forms of division. Anne Santoro, also a Republican, said the resolution didn’t offer specific solutions to the broad problem.
Democrat Ann Cicchiello asked for more time to review the issue.
The draft resolution describes race as a “social construct with no biological basis.” The statement echoes a concept published by the American Society of Human Genetics in 2018 challenging the idea that different races are biologically separate and distinct.
Also in the resolution are statements identifying racism as both individual and systemic, as a root cause of poverty and as a cause of disproportionate illness and mortality.
Santoro objected to broad statements that could be cause for debate. “There’s lots of room for disagreement, and I’m really trying to get beyond that,” she said.
She instead suggested inviting departments — such as police, the school system, human resources, parks and recreation and the library — to come before the Board of Selectmen to talk about what they’re doing to address racism.
“I think it would help the public to understand that the complaint or the concern doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “There is a system in place to address some of these things and some are being addressed. In fact, some quite well.”
Weber asked why the resolution focused on race to the exclusion of issues like sexual orientation, religion, military veteran status, age and disability. “We should say that everybody needs to be treated equally, not this group needs to be treated equally,” he said.
Ultimately, members agreed to put the issue on a future agenda.
Seery said he wants to “keep the conversation going” and will reach out to members of SCORE.
Lapides, one of the SCORE members who worked with Seery and Cunningham on the language, said she looks forward to the opportunity for SCORE to make a presentation to the new Board of Selectmen that includes facts, figures and an opportunity to answer questions.
She said racism is not something that was created by the town or its leaders — but it is everyone’s job to address it.
“It’s a systemic issue that exists in our country,” she said. “This is a problem everywhere and no one is immune to it. It’s our responsibility to practice anti-racism efforts.”
Acknowledging Weber’s concerns that it’s important to promote positive health outcomes for everyone, she said the focus at this moment is on anti-racism.
“It’s important for everybody, but we are focusing on racism that was recently, nationally declared a public health crisis,” she said.