The Easton Board of Selectmen unanimously approved the formation of the Easton Diversity and Inclusion Task Force as proposed by resident Lise Fleuette. The task force will act as an advisory group to investigate and offer recommendations to all town departments, boards and commissions regarding the best options for anti-racist action.
Fleuette’s idea to recommend this new task force to the Board of Selectmen originated among her peers in the Democratic Town Committee. Following George Floyd’s murder in May, a movement developed in Easton to take action. Floyd’s death unveiled to Fleuette the disproportionate police brutality and systemic oppression that Black Americans face.
“George Floyd’s daughter Gianna says ‘my daddy changed the world,’” Fleuette said. “ It’s an absolute tragedy that she has to embrace this thought as her comfort because her daddy should be there as her comfort. But I want her to know that he did change the world — because he changed me, someone who would never have known him.”
Fleuette said she previously didn’t realize the privileges that she has at the expense of people of color. Until recently, she made excuses for the steady drumbeat of stories of police brutality around the country by refusing to see the pattern.
“After George Floyd, it became crystal clear to me that Black men and women can’t feel safe in their own land,” Fleuette said. “They have legitimate reasons to be afraid of the police. And here as a white person, I was raised to trust and admire the police! I could no longer ignore the fact that people of color have a very different experience of and relationship with the police than I did, and that is not right.”
Fleuette was passionate about creating this task force to strengthen the community by committing to diversity and inclusion efforts.
“While Easton has no history of police brutality, like many affluent and predominantly white towns, Easton needs to step up and say we acknowledge that bias against people of color is a problem in the world around us, that it hurts them in very real ways, and that we want to do something about it,” Fleuette said. “We see this problem. We know it exists, we’re not going to pretend it doesn’t, and we’re going to do what we can to fix it.”
The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force creates a powerful entity to identify and investigate opportunities for improvement within Easton’s current structure. The task force will unearth areas for growth within Easton’s protocols, hiring practices, programming, and everyday biases that have not yet had an opportunity to be exposed.
“Anytime we as a community can look at ways to improve the situation around us is a good thing,” said Selectwoman Kristi Sogofsky. “We may have issues in town, and there’s no harm in taking an honest look at what’s going on in the community.”
Selectman Robert Lessler was also proud to support the task force. “It’s a great idea and many communities are doing this in various other ways,” Lessler said. “We need to take steps to make people more aware of the issues of structural racism and bias. It’s hard in a place like Easton because we don’t have many people of color here. It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t see a problem here.’ That’s why we need this task force, where everything seems to be fine.
“We’re not a particularly diverse community, but we certainly have people of color. Their experiences of racism here in Easton, while certainly not as tragic as what happened to George Floyd, are problematic and lead to bigger issues in this community and in this country. We need to make sure we’re doing our part in this community.”
The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force’s investigations and recommendations will hold powerful community attention, considering the increase in conversations around antiracist work in Easton. Another community member, Elaine O’Keefe, proposed a separate anti-racist action for Easton to adopt, independent of Fleuette’s initiative. She proposed that Easton declare racism a public health crisis, joining a statewide movement led by the organization Health Equity Solutions.
O’Keefe said she has been moved by the heightened focus on the issue of racism in Easton following the death of George Floyd, and she found Lila Estime’s most recent article calling on everyone to take action particularly inspiring. Estime grew up in Easton and attended the local schools. During the August 20 Board of Selectmen meeting, O’Keefe encouraged the town to explore ways to “make Easton as welcome and proactive as it can be in terms of addressing implicit bias and issues around fighting racism.”
O’Keefe, who worked as a public health professional for 35 years, said that the resolution aligns with the fundamental mission of public health “to prevent avoidable disease, disability and premature death by assuring conditions that allow everyone to enjoy optimal health.” She noted that tremendous gains have been made to increase life expectancy and achieve better health status for many in the United States.
However, “There are glaring, persistent racial health disparities in our country and Connecticut that are unacceptable and preventable, with ample data showing the particularly disproportionate burden of disease and premature death in communities of color,” she said. “We have to look at the social inequities that are the underlying cause of these disparities, and racism figures at large as a root cause. Until systemic racism and social inequality is addressed, there is little reason for optimism that these health disparities will be eliminated.
“The COVID pandemic has only magnified the severity of the problem with Black and Latinx individuals in Connecticut disproportionately affected. Local resolutions and declarations are a first but important step, acknowledging the problem and committing to work toward positive change.”
Easton is now one of 16 municipalities in Connecticut that has officially declared racism a public health crisis, and it is anticipated that many more will follow. Easton residents who wish to join a discussion about potential state legislative actions to address health inequities can join upcoming listening sessions sponsored by Health Equity Solutions.
Upon the Board of Selectmen’s unanimous acceptance of O’Keefe’s proposal, First Selectman David Bindelglass provided additional commentary on the resolution to answer some lingering questions about what it means that Easton recognizes racism as a public health crisis. Bindelglass mentioned that this signifies Easton’s adoption of a new lens to view these issues. He provided an example of a potential result from this new lens when he stated “malnutrition is a huge part of the inequity in health care, and we are a farm community. Perhaps we will have an opportunity to help in providing better quality foods for some of our neighbors.”
Not all voices from the community supported the Board of Selectmen’s unanimous votes on each of these items. “The reason for our comments at the Aug. 20 BOS meeting was that declaring racism as a public health crisis is, in our opinion, reckless virtue-signaling,” said John and Sherry Harris:
“Easton First Selectman David Bindelglass claims he based his support for this resolution on science and facts. For evidence, he points to racial health disparities, but the resolution passed by our BOS did not declare ‘racial health disparities’ to be a public health crisis. It declared ‘racism’ to be a public health crisis. By what scientific method would one even measure that assertion? The attending implication that our citizens are part of some undefined pattern of racism is disgraceful, divisive, and demonstrably false. Our immediate and extended family is multi-racial, including a Fresh Air son who was with us fulltime for three years and for many summers. We found complete acceptance in our community and surrounding towns and states. People and institutions such as the YMCA, the Discovery Museum, the East Coast Tae Kwon Do Academy, and the Sylvan Learning Center, to name just a few, were kind and generous beyond measure. They are the norm in America. They are everywhere and they live lives and run organizations that are the polar opposite of racist.”
Bindelglass has also drawn from his own experience as a practicing physician to support the scientific evidence from public health studies that for decades have documented racial disparities in health care in the United States. This example of systemic racism, or disparities in the health care system based on race, have prompted local leaders like Bindelglass to urge their communities not only to consider their own important personal or individualized experiences but to also recognize the reliable scientific data that has documented a broader and systemic problem within the health care system:
There is no question that there are very large racial disparities in the health of our population whether nationally or locally. . . . While I am certain this is true from my experience as a physician in this community for 29 years, overseeing the orthopedic clinic at Bridgeport hospital and having a Fairfield private practice, my thoughts are grounded in data. . . . As the briefest of snapshots, the recent pandemic has made this point abundantly clear. In Connecticut, the chances of obtaining Covid-19 for people of color is roughly three times that of white people. (This info is updated daily at ct.gov/coronavirus.) Bridgeport has the largest concentration of the virus in the state. . . .[W]e are 50 miles from America’s second-largest city and are very much tied to its economics, and social fabric through commuting, social and family ties. We are five miles from Bridgeport and greatly affected by that proximity. More importantly, I think we all agree that we enjoy great benefits by being citizens of these United States. I believe that we also own America’s problems and — even when the effects of those problems may not seem to affect us so directly at a particular moment in time — it is short-sighted to believe they never will, or not to prepare for when they might.
According to Lessler, “If we’re going to address issues of racism in this country, each community needs to do its part to gather information and use that data to implement change to make it better for people of color in those communities. If communities across the country can do this, we’ll see real change.”
The first three positions on the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force were appointed during the Sept. 3 Board of Selectmen meeting. There are still two alternate positions and one full-member position available. Interested residents are requested to contact Janet Haller, administrative assistant to the first selectman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.