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A 'declaration of inclusion' continues to spread across Vermont

Farmhouse painted with Black Lives Matter in Huntington
Abagael Giles
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VPR
A Huntington farmhouse is painted with the phrase "Black Lives Matter."

You see them as you drive into many Vermont towns big and small: welcome signs, listing attributes and attractions.

The sign defines what your town stands for — that'ss a good place to visit, to do business and settle down. But it's not the only means to that end.

On Election Day, the town of Plymouth approved a declaration of inclusion. It states that the town condemns racism, and commits to fair treatment of everyone regardless of race, religion, gender and several other traits.

Plymouth joins 73 other Vermont municipalities with identical statements on the books, representing just over half of the state's population.

Franklin in northwest Vermont was the first town in the state to adopt the declaration of inclusion. Dave Bennion is the Select Board chair there. Recently, he spoke with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch about the declaration's inception and what it's supposed to achieve.

Mary Williams Engisch: Dave, how did you learn about the declaration of inclusion? And what prompted you to create one for the town of Franklin?

A man smiles for the camera.
Courtesy
/
Dave Bennion

Dave Bennion: One of our Select Board members had been on vacation in Maine. And he had come across a declaration of inclusion there, and it intrigued him. So he brought a copy of it back and brought it up at our next Select Board meeting. We read through the declaration. We thought it sounded like it described Franklin pretty well. And after just a few little tweaks, we adopted it in September of 2020.

And I understand that some folks in the Rutland County area got involved to help spread the word even further. Bob Harnish and Al Wakefield — business owners there — they were actually moved to action from a place of distress. Can you tell me more about that?

There's been a lot of unfairness in this world. And there's a lot of racism, a lot of narrow thinking. And I think there are a lot of things that play into that. So Bob Harnish happens to be my cousin. And a couple of weeks after we adopted the declaration, he and I were talking on the phone and he said, "Well, is there anything new and interesting happening in Franklin?" And I said, "Well, we just adopted a declaration of inclusion." And he said, "Well, what's that?"

And so I described it to him a bit. And he said, "Could you send me a copy?" So I did. That started things rolling. They were somewhat concerned about the way things were coming about. He got together with Al and Norm Cohen. They started going town to town. The result, as you said, is over half the population. Now, I think it's a very positive statement that we're making. And a town that takes it to heart, I think is really going to help themselves, as well as all the people who live there.

After the the declaration of inclusion is adopted in cities and towns, what happens then? What's the commitment that they're making?

Well, of course, that's certainly up to the town. But there's a lot of different things that they can do to ensure that they're conforming to what they're declaring.

We have gone through ordinances and such in the town making sure that there is not any exclusive language — that it's fair all the way around.

We try to keep it on the table when we're doing hiring. One of the things we did — we felt we needed some more diversity at our Select Board meetings. So we have appointed a youth representative, a high school junior-senior who can come and give us a youth perspective on the things we're discussing. We are currently on our second youth representative. They bring a certain life to the discussions and a certain perspective that we might not otherwise have.

Are you ever concerned that the declaration might feel simplistic? That Vermont municipalities will, of course, join in and they'll declare, "Yeah, we're open and we're inclusive for business or for pleasure or raise your family here," and then feel satisfied without necessarily doing the difficult work of ensuring that they are meeting that commitment in the declaration? Tell me more about going beyond the adopting of the inclusion and the implementation of it.

The intent is that we keep looking at this, that the declaration helps keep it in our sights. Whether or not it works out that way is due in part to the attitude of the people in the town. You just have to keep bringing it up. I'm not sure that there's any way that something like that can be forced. I think it has to just develop.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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