NORWALK, Conn. — Participating in a Black Live Matter march is a natural for Rowayton resident Brigitte Van Den Houte.
Not only does Van Den Houte work professionally at the executive level to increase diversity in company hiring, her two grown children from a previous marriage are people of color, she said. She thought there would be less racism in America when they moved here from Europe eight years ago. But no, “I was naive to think that it would be better in the United States.”
Up to 100 people marched Sunday through tony Rowayton, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and Black women matter,” and Van Den Houte was one of them. A flier distributed at the protest indicated that a Black Lives Matter sign is central to their complaints.
The sign was posted on the “old school fence,” a community bulletin board of sorts, but removed in July. An anonymous letter writer who alerted NancyOnNorwalk to Sunday’s protest called that “embarrassing,” accusing the Sixth Taxing District of “hindering, obstructing and ignoring the call for justice from the majority of empathetic anti-racism forward thinking residents in our special town.”
“We believe the handful of your dissenters against the sign in town are motivated by their wish to keep blacks and persons of color out of town for their real estate interests, or out of their own (conscious or unconscious) complicity with racism,” the email continued. “We feel the board of commissioners has a vested interest in the town, and genuinely does mostly good, and we are grateful and appreciate your work. However with members of the real estate business running the 6th TD with a public history of racist remarks and conflicts with the BOE at the helm making unilateral decisions, I fear the best interest of the few of we people of color in town, and future would be diverse residents is not fairly represented well here.”
Sixth Taxing District Commissioners Mike Barbis, Tamsen Langalis and John Igneri did not reply to a Saturday email from NancyOnNorwalk asking for a response to the comments.
Langalis led the July 6TD meeting where the decision to remove the sign was announced.
“We’ve had a number of residents inquire and let us know that they feel it is actually a political statement,” she said. “The sign has been up for four weeks, and we feel that that has been longer than our two week notice for most signs. And we would like to suggest to residents, that they take that movement and bring it into their own yards.”
Langalis said, “at least six people” had asked that the sign be removed.
Priscilla Feral said that the sign had helped raise $5,000 for the Carver Center. “I think there’s a good result here that has nothing to do with anybody’s political campaign,” she continued. “…I know there were detractors. Of course, there were juveniles who deface the various signs, but the last one that went up, it felt as though the community had reached a feeling about the importance of addressing institutional racism. So I’m happy for that.”
“It’s not a political message. It’s a message about equality for all people, and I think that’s something that really should be behind,” Jane Seymour said.
Langalis said the issue would be revisited and that’s happening: the flier handed out by Sunday’s marchers said the Sixth Taxing District plans to discuss it Wednesday. It advertised a petition; the petition does not indicate how many people have signed it.
Van Den Houte on Monday said there are indeed signs in Rowayton saying “equity matters” and “all lives matter,” which “makes me happy,” and it’s “surprising” because many of them are at big houses on the waterfront.
“I don’t belong to that richer community, but there’s a lot of rich people here and some of them … at least they show it,” she said. “I think that’s very courageous because there’s a lot of people in Rowayton who don’t want to talk about it, and I think that’s the biggest problem. …It’s still a taboo to talk about racism.”
It’s “disgusting” that the sign came down, she said.
Van Den Houte has worked for Pitney Bowes for nearly 15 years and is Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Global Talent Management, according to her LinkedIn page.
“I have been responsible, for many years, for diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said, calling the issue “very important to me.”
When the Belgium native married the first time, it was like probably one of the first mixed marriages in her town and region, she said. Her kids were “the only kids of color in their school.”
Neither lives in Rowayton. Her son, Brooklyn resident, feels self-conscious when he goes to the Rowayton market, but her daughter has lighter skin and fares better, she said.
“They’re very sensitive to it and how they’re being perceived, and they’re always worried and scared,” Van Den Houte said. “Again, that was the same in in Europe, you know, believe me, it’s not much that’s better there. So it’s, it’s just different.”
It would have been better if there were more marchers Sunday, but there was also an event in Stamford, she said. She had no friends out marching and that was “disappointing.”
Some drivers honked in support and one “was like really screaming out for window ‘you are all Communists’… but there are more positive reactions and negative reactions,” she said.
“It’s almost unaffordable for people of color to live here,” Van Den Houte said. “So that also is something else, like how can you have a community where all lives matter, all life matters? There is not even a possibility for them, who have lower incomes, to get a house here.”