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Norwalk needs to take real action on equity after disappointingly poor start

Send signed letters to [email protected]

This is an open letter to Mayor Harry Rilling.

Dear Mayor Rilling,

The Race and Social Justice Coalition at St. Paul’s has been closely following developments regarding the consulting firm Led By Us & Associates and the City, since we were one of the groups with whom they spoke. We are concerned with the lack of transparency in the ending of the contract with the consulting firm, which we saw recently reflected in the local newspapers. Our group, and we are sure many others, has been waiting since August 2021 to find out why this group was so abruptly dismissed.

We would like to recall some of the history of how we became involved with this group. Following the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests in Norwalk, well handled by the police, you convened a Zoom meeting which included Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik and many interested citizens. At this meeting, you pledged that action would be taken in the police department to make its members address issues of equity in Norwalk more fairly and openly. During this lengthy open meeting, you stated more than once, “We have all been to meetings like this where people’s concerns were heard, and participants left eager to engage in promised change, and nothing happened. I promise you that this will be different.”

Following that meeting, you issued an invitation to anyone who wanted a seat at the table to convene to discuss issues and recommend action around equity and inclusion. The Race and Social Justice Coalition responded and were promised a seat at the table.

Nothing happened for several months, and there was no information forthcoming about convening any meeting to move this issue forward.

In March of 2021, Led By Us was hired. We took this as a sign of progress; however, it took another few months before the group began its work in earnest.

April of 2021 saw our Race and Social group inviting both you and Police Chief Kulhawik to meet with us to discuss issues of equity and justice, notably the establishment of a Police Review Board in Norwalk. The meeting, in our view, was both cordial and hopeful. Led By Us also began its work around this time, making us believe that work on equity issues was coming to fruition.

Led By Us began to solicit information from the community in various ways, much of it online. We noticed, though, that neither invitations nor encouragement to join them in their work came from the City to interested parties. There was a general call for people who were interested to attend the meetings; but as one activist, Council member Diana Révolus (D-District B), so aptly noted in the recent article on NancyOnNorwalk, “distrust keeps people from participating in efforts such as the equity initiative. Citizens need to see results, actual change in their lives.”

It seems shortsighted that the City would hire consultants on such a major issue as equity and justice and not prepare the community for the response that it hoped to get. Complaining after the organized meetings failed to attract much attention in our community and blaming the consultants for the poor turnout seems disingenuous or myopic. As we pointed out to you in your earlier meeting with us, no marginalized person would feel safe or welcome to come forward to discuss issues of equity and justice in spaces where they do not feel a sense of openness. If the City had understood this, community members would have been approached differently prior to the meeting. Invitations would have been extended with warmth and encouragement. We feel it is important for consultants coming in to work on sensitive topics such as equity and justice to understand and appreciate the prevailing attitudes in the community before beginning their work. As Ms. Révolus noted “There are people who aren’t up to using Google or who consider surveys white noise.” This is important feedback that should be considered for the future.

Members of our Coalition who were able to meet with Led By Us in some of the public meetings they convened found the meetings sparsely attended but nevertheless helpful and informative. The two Led By Us leaders met with our Coalition in the spring and in the late summer. We found them to be skilled facilitators, good listeners, and appropriately versed in issues of equity and justice; and we were looking forward to hearing the experience of others in our community. Their social media work was also beginning to attract some attention within the community, and our Coalition was also looking forward to another opportunity to meet with them.

Very abruptly, we suddenly were unable to reach the consultants with no explanation as to what had happened from City officials. We had heard rumors that their contract had been terminated, but there was no public statement to confirm where things stood. This was extremely disappointing for our group and, we suspect, others with whom they had positive interactions.

In January of this year, we learned through the Norwalk newspapers that at a public press conference, Lamond Daniels, Norwalk Chief of Social Services, had announced that Led By Us had been terminated five months previously. He cited “various differences in the approach, the strategies, and how the firm showed up in our community,” as among the reasons for letting them go.

We are left with many unanswered questions. First, why did it take the City five months to announce the termination of Led By Us & Associates to the stakeholders in the process and the public? Second, what were the differences of approach that “were not in the best interest of the community?” The way the process was explained to the stakeholders seemed transparent and did not in any way point to issues that could have been interpreted as red flags.

Specific reasons for the contract termination need to be made clearer than the garbled quotations in the recent articles in both Nancy on Norwalk and The Norwalk Hour. If the City wishes to build trust with the community around issues of equity and social justice, this is a very poor start.

We respectfully request action on equity in Norwalk. First, from what we have read, we gather there should be an unfinished “Conditions Analysis Report” to be released and reviewed by the Community Service Committee in February. We believe that this report should be made public, especially to stakeholders in this process. There was also mention in the newspaper articles of the inclusion of recommendations made by Led By Us “to further inclusivity in the City.” We would like to see those recommendations. We also ask that, given the failure of this effort, we could again revisit the establishment of a Police Review Board. Convening interested parties around a table to discuss and act on equity issues, as you promised nearly two years ago, would also be timely at this stage. The City of Norwalk needs to do the Important work necessary to further equity and social justice in our city, and we stand ready to do our part.

We look forward to hearing from you and can be reached at

[email protected].

Very truly yours,

The Race and Social Justice Coalition at St. Paul’s

cc:

  • Police Chief Kulhawik
  • Common Council Members
  • Briggs Tobin, Chair, Fairfield County Community Foundation

8 comments

Another Neighbor February 5, 2022 at 6:53 pm

Nobody wants “equity”. They want—or should want—“equal opportunity”. Your group was fired for lack of relevance.

Be on Guard February 6, 2022 at 7:36 am

Be careful. If you champion “equal opportunity” versus “equity” you’ll probably be labeled a racist. The world is crazy.

JustaTaxpayer February 6, 2022 at 7:55 am

Why don’t the members of this group at St Paul’s list their names? Is it ALL the church members who agree with this or a handful of people? Can one form the Patriotic Americans Coalition at St Paul’s?

Mr. Taxpayer February 6, 2022 at 10:55 am

I read your letter twice and got a headache trying to comprehend what in the world your blathering about. I work with 333 employees that encompasses every part of the rainbow and all getting decent pay and positions.

Enough of this gibberish

Sherelle Harris February 6, 2022 at 1:28 pm

Interesting…

https://tinyurl.com/mrym7mp6

Some overtly political and one size fits all mentalities act as the fence in this graphic.
I am a cheerleader for classical education, not all of the buzzwords and phrases that
continue to pop up.

How do we get to justice in education?

Jo Bennett February 7, 2022 at 7:37 am

Wow,I thought this as thoughtfully and rationally presented. Looking forward to the response (if any).

Piberman February 7, 2022 at 10:44 am

The best “equity outcome” we can secure for Norwalk is giving all of our kids a first rate education so they realize the American Dream. But most of our City’s graduating kids fail to meet CT Edu standards. Nor do most of our kids ever secure 4 yr college degrees.

A good place to start is to compare how our BOE “does business” versus how our high performing surrounding towns BOEs “do business”. They get the results. We don’t.
What does it take to get a BOE that does much better educating our kids ? Here’s a suggestion. Paying our Supt $300k – tops in CT – sends the wrong message.

Lets encourage our City leaders to take up the challenge and secure public education that meets CT Edu Dept standards. Do it because “its the right thing to do”. Are we encouraging our most qualified citizens to secure appointment to our BOE as do our neighboring towns ? It’s a good question.

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