NEWS

‘Difficult conversations’: Black History Month resolution spurs impassioned discussion

By DANIEL A. KITTREDGE
Posted 2/17/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE A resolution recognizing Black History Month in Cranston received the unanimous backing of the City Council last week - but not before an unexpected, lengthy and at times impassioned discussion. "e;All of you can be there. We've got

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‘Difficult conversations’: Black History Month resolution spurs impassioned discussion

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A resolution recognizing Black History Month in Cranston received the unanimous backing of the City Council last week – but not before an unexpected, lengthy and at times impassioned discussion.

“All of you can be there. We’ve got work to do, I’m telling you, my brothers and sisters,” Ward 2 Councilwoman Aniece Germain, who introduced the resolution, said toward the end of the discussion while inviting all of her council colleagues to be added as cosponsors.

A native of Haiti who is the first Black woman to serve on the council, she added: “I come from a really different path … and I want to share that with you.”

The language of the resolution states that “for too long, Black people have been denied the recognition they deserve in history.”

It continues: “… as a result of racism, Black people on average have worse health outcomes, educational attainment, social mobility, and are the victims of a wide range of racial and economic injustices.”

The document also echoes an earlier resolution, unanimously passed by the council late last year, in declaring racism a “public health issue.” It expresses the council’s view that “it is a moral duty to make Cranston a more racially inclusive and equitable city.”

It concludes by calling on the city to “celebrate the African American legacy by organizing various social and educational activities throughout the month of February.”

Germain’s resolution appeared on course for quick approval during a special meeting of the full council on Feb. 11, held over Zoom ahead of a handful of committee meetings. The councilwoman described the measure as a “statement of inclusiveness and recognition” and a chance to “send a message to our community.”

Annette Bourne, research and policy director of HousingWorks RI, and Kayland Arrington, initiative director of the OneCranston Health Equity Zone, spoke in favor of the resolution’s passage during public comment.

“The story of Black people is one of culture, wisdom and human perseverance in the face of unimaginable odds,” Bourne told council members.

“We can never achieve health equity without race equity … Racism is a public health issue,” Arrington said.

Council members then began expressing their support for the resolution.

Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan called it a “historic moment” for the city, since a measure recognizing Black History Month was being introduced by a Black council member for the first time.

Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino noted that the current council includes four women and two people of color.

“I think we’re all proud to serve on one of the most diverse City Councils that the city has ever seen,” she said.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas said 2020 “was a year that shed much light on a much needed conversation” about racial and social justice, even though those discussions may at times be “extremely uncomfortable.”

The floor was then given to Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly, who said while he was supportive of the resolution and would vote for it, he planned to propose a handful of amendments to its wording.

Some passages from Germain’s initial proposal, he suggested, included phrasing or conclusions that some constituents “could find caustic.”

“There were some things that jumped out to me that I felt were of a harsher nature, and we want to make this more celebratory, I feel, in calling people in rather than calling people out,” he said.

Reilly also questioned whether the City Council had the “expertise to make these claims,” referring to some of the measure’s original wording.

He additionally made a point to note that Mayor Ken Hopkins issued his own proclamation of Black History Month, a step he said previous administrations have also taken.

“I didn’t want this resolution to take away from any of the past good works of other people,” he said.

Specifically, Reilly’s amendments sought to eliminate the passages cited earlier in this story regarding the lack of recognition of Black people in history and the various negative outcomes resulting from racism. The councilman also sought to strike the language declaring racism a “public health issue,” and proposed changing the reference to the city’s “moral duty” to simply “the duty.”

Reilly’s proposed amendments drew a forceful response from some council members.

Donegan was first to weigh in, saying he was “really disappointed” and describing the amendments as a “sham.”

“What these amendments say to me as a white guy is, we’ll celebrate Black History Month as long as its comfortable,” he said. “That’s doing the easy work, and that’s not the work that we were elected here to do. It requires difficult conversations.”

He continued: “Do inequities exist in Cranston? Yes. Do they exist for people of color? Yes. Is there statistical data to back up the statements made [in the resolution]? Yes.”

Vargas said she felt Reilly’s “intentions are not bad,” but she pushed back against the proposed changes to the language of the resolution.

“This is the truth … It should be included in there,” she said, adding: “I really didn’t expect to have a conversation for a full half hour about declaring February Black History Month.”

Germain delivered a defense of the resolution’s original wording while sharing from her experience as a Black woman – including times she has faced discrimination.

“I cannot stress enough the urgency to stop all forms of racial oppression. And what you’re doing, in all due respect, Councilman Reilly, is oppression,” she said, defining oppression as “embedded in unquestioned norms, habits and symbols.”

She added: “You are not comfortable with this language. You are not the only one. We have a lot of constituents. But our role as this body is to set the example.”

Germain also told Reilly: “This time, my brother, is not a time for silence. It’s not a time for complacence … I am committed to help you … because I know your environment is different than mine.”

Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady, who earlier had spoken of the need to “listen to both sides” as part of “difficult conversations,” responded to Germain’s “passionate” remarks while continuing to call for some form of compromise.

“To hear you speak from your heart like you did … I could hear your passion there. It was powerful. But it doesn’t mean you can’t hear a rebuttal back, too,” he said.

Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli said she appreciated Germain’s remarks and also raised the prospect of a compromise.

“I’m constantly trying to education myself on this topic … I see both sides of what everyone is trying to do,” she said.

Renzulli continued: “It’s not up to white people to be comfortable with factual history and prejudice that Black people are facing.” She added, though, that if “some of the language prevents people from having the conversation, then I’m afraid that it doesn’t do what it’s intended to do.”

Reilly initially responded to the remarks from Germain and other council members by reiterating his earlier points.

“I was just trying to take the negative context away from this. Again, I’m not saying I agree or disagree with anything, and I absolutely respect Councilwoman Germain’s point, and I’ll speak to her calmly and respectfully, and refer to her as Councilmember Germain … And to be referred to as being oppressive or whatnot, I don’t think should be approved,” he said.

In the end, Reilly withdrew his amendments from consideration.

“I did not mean any disrespect to the Black community or to Councilwoman Germain by suggesting this … I thought this would be a more positive approach to bring more people in so that those who may be uncomfortable would be more open to have these conversations,” he said.

He added: “Realizing and hearing the passion of Councilwoman Germain, really listening and hearing where she’s coming from, this is not something I want to stand in her way of.”

Some wording Reilly sought to have added to the resolution was ultimately adopted through a motion that Vargas made with the support of Germain.

The passage that was added reads: “The City of Cranston honors Black Americans and will continue to provide an environment for critical conversations to continue in order to ensure that we combat racism and discrimination against Black people and people of color.”

The proceedings concluded with a conciliatory tone. Germain thanked Reilly for the night’s discussion.

“That’s what we need. We need to have open, smart conversation,” she said.

Renzulli made a similar point, saying that while the meeting started off heading in the “wrong direction,” the fact the council “worked together to make the resolution even better I think was pretty important.” She also spoke of finding ways to bringing similar conversations into the city’s schools, an idea Germain endorsed.

Council President Chris Paplauskas ended the discussion with a statement of support for Germain.

“I might not have walked in your shoes,” he said, “but I stand with you.”

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