PITTSFORD — Last summer when Al Wakefield got a call from his friend Bob Harnish asking what he, as a white person, should be doing to advance racial justice, Wakefield figured he’d suggest a few books for Harnish to read and that would be that.
Wakefield is Black and is not unaccustomed to being asked this question by white friends.
“I figured, as well as I know Bob … I just figured Bob is another white guy who was just kind of thinking about things and feeling guilty and I’m the only Black guy he knows, and so why not call me up; he knows I’m pretty open about stuff and explore this,” said Wakefield.
Harnish came back to Wakefield about three months later with an idea — one he’d pulled from his cousin in Franklin, that a little over six months later would see about a dozen towns adopting inclusivity statements, brief passages condemning racism and bigotry in all its forms.
“Bob has been a person who does what he says he’s going to do, follows up on what he says,” said Wakefield. “Once he grabs a hold of something he doesn’t let it go. I put Bob in a wrong category, because he did follow up.”
Wakefield, Harnish, and others have been working to help other communities draft and adopt inclusion statements.
“It’s gained a certain momentum on its own,” said Harnish on Monday.”It seems to be growing organically to some extent.”
Some towns have adopted it on their own, others have done so working closely with Harnish and the informal group he, Wakefield, and others have formed.
“Some towns adopt it without even contacting us. Others want us to kind of hold their hand all the way through the process. We have quite a packet of material we send out,” said Harnish.
Harnish said that the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020 and the passing of congressman and civil rights leader John Robert Lewis got him to thinking, specifically about what he was doing when Lewis was leading the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
“And that was the year I bought the Summit Lodge up at Killington,” said Harnish. “I was thinking to myself last summer, where was I during all this? I completely ignored those marches and the calls for racial justice, just thinking it was someone else’s problem.”
People are free to contact Harnish at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-779-7714 should they wish to see their town adopt an inclusion statement.
According to Harnish, which towns have adopted a statement is getting hard to track, but he’s aware of Franklin, Pittsford, Brandon, Pawlet, Middlebury, Moretown, Waterbury, Pittsfield, Milton, Woodstock village, and Randolph having done so, along with Rutland City. It’s being debated in the Town of Woodstock, Tinmouth, West Rutland, Mendon, Chester, Springfield, and Bristol, and perhaps more.
Rutland Town, he said, has so far been the only town to discuss and reject adopting a statement. In late May, the Rutland Town Select Board voted 4-1 to not consider an inclusion statement at this time, the reasoning being, largely, that it wasn’t necessary.
Harnish and Wakefield say it is necessary, not only because it’s the right thing to do given racial disparities prevalent in America, but also because it will help Vermont communities grow.
“And quite honestly, a town like Rutland, which is as good an example as anything, a town like Rutland has storefronts vacant all over the place, the population is decreasing, young people are leaving the state, not coming back, and it’s as much an economic issue as it is a do-good,” said Wakefield.
Harnish said he sought to do this after speaking to his cousin on the Franklin Select Board, where an inclusion statement had been passed. He brought it to Pittsford, where he lives, and after two meetings it was adopted there. Wakefield said that in Mendon, where he lives, the Select Board is scheduled to discuss it.