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VoSh Has To Address Its Racism Problem: Part One

We've all heard the stories. Police got called on a non-white person for no reason. Officers refused to remove thin blue line flags from publicly-owned vehicles. Brown or Black children were stopped and questioned, while playing. Bias incidents like these happen across America. I can only point to uncorroborated rumors here, other than that time when the VoSh board tanked a proposal to replace the Pyare Square Building with multi-family housing and a resident got the ACLU to sue the municipality. At the time, I felt like suing to strip our neighborhood of its funding seemed extreme. I hadn't lived here that long. I didn't know any of the legal parties, or the details of the case. Looking back now after more growth and education, I know my white privilege just allowed me to ignore the systemic racism. I was part of the problem. We all are.


Earlier this week, one of our elected trustees, who had been president pro tempore of our board, informed the board president that she'd been the target of racial discrimination. Back in October, she'd shared her "grievances with the hope that we can find a way to resolve some lingering issues." In response to her complaint, the board president claimed he'd never heard of this. So she shared the October letter, again. In an email of public record that she shared with me, she attested that he had ignored her: "You never responded to me. You never spoke to me about it in person. Your unresponsiveness only escalated the discrimination I have experienced."


To be clear, these are people who routinely schedule and organize special meetings with only a few days notice when a resident needs an accessory dwelling permit, or they need a budget passed. They check their email.


As unresolved problems often do, the complaint came out in public. During a board discussion about agenda templates -- you can watch it here from about 2:20 -- my colleague cited evidence that "the only individual that was prevented from making changes to the agenda template was the minority trustee[.]" She didn't ask anyone to resign or apologize, or even admit fault. She simply asked them to stop requiring the templates, which restrict a trustee's ability to make last-minute changes to committee agendas they are ultimately responsible for.


The administrator who created the template shot back that she didn't "appreciate the insinuation that anything I do is based in discrimination," and that "none of the other Trustees have actually come to me and tried arguing with me." Later, she said it again: The "only reason" for having a template was "you wouldn't quit arguing with me."


It felt like she was trying to say that although no other trustee was required to abide the template, the village was about to require it of everyone. But the employee's defensiveness obscured her defense. The discussion got heated and she stormed out. And what did the board president whose actual job it is to maintain peace and order do? He turned to his colleague -- a woman he's worked with for years, a trustee who's voiced the same concern in many emails and meetings -- and said she was "totally out of order."


A nice neighbor texted me the following day. She wrote, the "last 10 minutes of that board meeting was so upsetting," especially when everyone got up and [the nonwhite trustee] was left sitting there by herself. She added that she'd recently heard of another incident. Allegedly,"a resident approached a black family at the ice rink and told them the rink was only for Village residents[.] What in the hell is going on?"


I'm familiar with the extent of these issues because last spring, I ran for an open board seat. I was goaded into it, to help out. I ran alongside my friend Tracy, who wanted to replace the existing president. She didn't win; I did. When I resigned less than a year into my term, I told my colleagues they'd repeatedly "sought to frame my informed, honest, well-intentioned, and civil disagreement — especially around my opposition to bureaucratic intransigence and political gatekeeping — as 'offensive' and 'uncivil,'" and that it had taken a toll on my welfare. The president sent a curt impersonal note quoting an unnamed attorney. Nobody thanked me for serving or even acknowledged I'd be gone. After years of fighting gender discrimination in our community, alongside other women, I'm familiar with their strategy.


Feign ignorance ---> Plausible deniability.


That playbook worked better before social media and zoom meetings, though. The internet didn't explode with Karen memes a few years ago because white women suddenly started harassing people of color; victims finally could expose it. But knowing you have a paper trail and video evidence doesn't lessen the harm you experience. The board's hostility exacerbated an already difficult year for me. Only one other board member felt attacked and sidelined more stridently and consistently than I was. Guess. As I often said to her when we were being gaslighted, or struggling to understand why a simple request had become another "civility" violation -- I knew they were biased against her because while I am a direct, confident and sometimes provocative person, my nonwhite colleague is one of the most compromising, sweet, gracious, and cooperative people I've ever worked with. It didn't make sense outside of one, particular lens.


If we're going to heal, residents need to do more than vote. They have to speak up, speak out for change. Village attorneys should mandate DEI or sensitivity training, which we've asked for several times. White people can learn to own their complicity, it's not hard. I started this blog post with that language in part to demonstrate how easily and empathetically they could have responded at the meeting. The president could've said: "I hear you, I value you, we need to do better." Subsequent email has reinforced that her "conduct" will be their only target of concern.


Some people won't learn. They'll continue to be openly disdainful, and wax nostalgically about a time when only white people or only men had leadership access. Just the other day, one said about myself and another female trustee, who weren't there to defend ourselves: [E]ither because board members were less experienced or board members just didn’t have the same understanding that board members... had in the past about how things get done in terms of governance, we had a lot more disagreement, a lot more dysfunction [.]"


He was right about one thing. We do not have the same "understanding."










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