NORWALK, Conn. – An initiative by the City of Norwalk, prompted by the murder of George Floyd, to “root out real and/or perceived injustices and inequalities” has launched under the banner “Norwalk Speaks!”
The effort, headed by Bridgeport consulting agency Led By Us & Associates (LBU), will “develop guidelines and recommendations to ensure that the municipality will conduct itself in an equitable, diverse and inclusive manner going forward,” a news release said.
LBU focuses on “responsible urban development,” according to its website. In addition to building an app to facilitate community input, the consultancy plans a slate of activities, including the development of a Norwalk Equity and Justice for All Commission within the next year.
The commission will “have teeth,” with legal powers, “otherwise we’re just gonna end up with more documents… and a lot of plans,” LBU spokesman Kelvin Ayala said.
The firm was hired in March, with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Fairfield County Community Foundation, after Common Council members touched on many issues related to the effort, such as “Norwalk’s biggest challenge from a DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) lens,” in the words of Council member Greg Burnett (D-At Large).
Among the biggest challenges, Ayala said, will be “rebuilding trust” among marginalized communities, convincing them their voice matters. Trust (and the lack thereof) took on greater urgency after Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, triggering nationwide protests.
“We are well-aware of the potential for pushback…” said Kim Bianca Williams, LBU’s director of community development. “It’s going to be extremely important that we allow people, first of all, a public place to share their concerns, give them the courage to speak openly and honestly, because when you have been in a situation where you’ve been shut down for so long in so many different ways, you have the mindset of, well, why even bother?”
To that end, if you’ve ever felt marginalized, LBU wants to hear from you.
If you’re doing well, your opinion is wanted too. People on the “white privilege side” also need a seat at the table, Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) said, because “that’s how we start to change culture, because sadly, that culture was created by people who look like me.”
LBU’s role, according to Ayala, will be to “use our knowledge and expertise to help facilitate and guide conversation, hard conversations, difficult conversations. And we need to be respectful of disagreeing opinions.”
Since the discussion in March that led to their hiring, “LBU’s team of consultants and the City of Norwalk have been working together to develop an ambitious schedule of research, events, communications, reports, and other items that they will produce over the next 12 months,” the news release said.
Norwalk Speaks! has rolled out its social media app via Mighty Networks, as a download for Android and IOS. It provides “a platform for sharing information about upcoming events, surveys, updates about the project, and discussion of issues that are important to Norwalk residents,” the press release said.
In addition to a project website and additional social media platforms, Norwalk Speaks! is beginning a two-month period of gathering data and documenting stories and interactions to facilitate discussions.
“We recognize that now is the time for us to stop talking about making things more equitable, diverse, and inclusive in our city, and for us to roll up our sleeves and get to work making it happen,” Mayor Harry Rilling is quoted as saying. “We need to build back trust between the city and our residents by delivering on this promise, by doing the work necessary to make substantive changes, and putting systems in place that ensure those changes are long-lasting.” Rilling asked that policing issues be included.
Last week on the app, Ayala posted an announcement that the Connecticut House of Representatives had passed Senate Bill 1, which, among other things, declares racism as a public health crisis.
Sarah Roy of Led By Us posted a link to Pride events, and also asked, “If you could make one rule that everyone in Norwalk had to follow, what rule would you make?”
She had two replies as of Saturday morning.
- “Stop dumping your animals,” one person said. “It’s cruelty and it’s wrong.”
- “Have limits on water!!! Some people don’t care and expend the water like crazy’s!!” another said.
The app also announces Zoom events. There was a conversation Tuesday; Ayala informed NancyOnNorwalk that a youth forum is planned for Wednesday.
“We want to inspire people to act, to get involved, and to share in the Norwalk Speaks! transformative experience,” Ayala said in the press release. “We give the City of Norwalk credit for being willing to hold a mirror up to itself and take a long, hard look. It may be uncomfortable at times, but that’s where the growth happens, where the real change can unfold.”
“It’s not lip service,” said Community Services and Personnel Committee Chairwoman Barbara Smyth (D-At Large), who helped select Led By Us. Change “needs to happen.”