A year after Keene’s racial-justice report, work continues to make it a reality
After George Floyd’s murder two years ago, Pierre Morton felt hopeless, angry and fearful. As protests erupted nationwide, he wasn’t sure they would lead to real change.
“What I can tell you is that it was a feeling of no matter what, voices that have not normally been heard will be heard,” Morton, a Keene resident who serves as Franklin Pierce University’s chief diversity officer, said in a recent interview.
That May and June, people across the Monadnock Region held rallies for racial justice in Central Square in Keene, along busy highways in Peterborough and Rindge, on a village green in Winchester and on a dirt road leading to the Hancock transfer station. People spoke about racism at community forums. Keene’s mayor convened a committee on racial justice.
Morton was among those named to the committee. He recalls it as a key moment.
“That was a demarcation point between talk and action,” he said. “… That’s when the cries that you heard from people of color, and white people, actually when those cries became real. When it began to hit the road. Where action could actually take place.”
That body — the ad hoc Racial Justice and Community Safety Committee — wrapped up its work a year ago this month, with a report containing more than 30 recommendations to make Keene a more equitable and inclusive place.
In the time since, action has been taken on some of these items, from adjusting the city’s hiring processes to further diversifying the library’s fiction collection. And while others remain on the to-do list, local residents and organizations have laid the groundwork to tackle them by forming a new group, the Monadnock Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Coalition.
“It’s going to be the coalition that basically … sees that the racial justice/community safety report doesn’t just fall to the wayside,” said Catt Workman, a city councilor who serves as the group’s vice chairperson.
'Keene is no exception'
The Keene racial justice committee began meeting in July 2020, a month after dozens of community members shared their personal experiences of racism, ideas for change and hopes for the future at a public forum on Zoom.
“This continues to be a really important issue for our community,” Keene Mayor George Hansel, who convened the committee and organized the forum, said in a recent interview.
Making Keene a welcoming place for everyone is both the right thing to do and critical to attracting the young people this area needs to thrive, he said. “I think we sometimes don’t talk about race as much as we should.”
Keene resident Tia Hockett didn’t know what to expect when she was asked to serve on the committee, but wanted to lend her voice.
“It was just nice to see other people of different races that had the same goal as well,” Hockett said. “Because I guess for a long time I just [felt] like people didn’t care.”
Hockett said the process delved into the workings of local institutions like the Keene Police Department and the school system, and was also “personally healing.” She felt that people finally believed her when she spoke about her own experiences as a Black person in Keene.
“Just from past experiences growing up in a rural community that’s not very diverse,” she said, “and being a part of something like this has been almost like, ‘Hey I’m not crazy. These things are real. These experiences that I’ve had of racism were real.’ ”
After a series of meetings and public forums, the committee issued its report, with numerous specific recommendations for city government, the school system, local employers and other institutions to consider.
The report was unequivocal in its call for action, citing testimony from local residents “who experience racist slurs, aloof comments about slavery, school curricula that are inadequate regarding the important experience and influence of black Americans, lack of anti-racism policy, fear of reprisal for any response to racist activity and lack of racial diversity in important services” such as health care.
“These are just brief examples of the bigger picture of racism that plague[s] many quiet American communities,” it adds, “and Keene is no exception.”
'Still a lot of work to do'
In interviews this month, city officials and other stakeholders described the steps they’ve taken to implement some of the report’s recommendations.
In August, for example, the Keene City Council adopted a declaration committing the city to welcoming “people of all colors, creeds, beliefs, lifestyles, nationalities, physical abilities, and mental abilities,” and vowing to “condemn and never ignore acts of bigotry, oppression, and hatred.”
The city has also worked to make hiring more inclusive, according to Human Resources Director Beth Fox, for example by making sure the process centers on necessary skills and requirements, to limit opportunities for implicit bias, as well as advertising openings — including for police officers — on job boards focused on minorities and veterans.
And the Keene Public Library has stepped up efforts to diversify its collections, something that had already been a goal, according to Director Marti Fiske.
“Between November 2021 and January 2022, 44% of the purchases in adult fiction books included authors and stories representing Black, Asian, Hispanic, Multiracial and LBGTQIA+ communities,” Fiske said in an email.
Local mental-health emergency response has also improved — one of the report’s law enforcement-related recommendations, as police are often dispatched to people in crisis — thanks to the state’s funding of regional mobile crisis teams. Monadnock Family Services launched its team in January.
While it wasn’t specifically recommended in the report, many community members asked the Keene Police Department to equip officers with body-worn cameras in 2020. Both KPD and the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office are in the process of doing so.
Other steps remain to be done. For example, Hansel has pledged to formalize a process for encouraging diversity in his nominations to city boards and commissions, but said he is still working out the logistics.
Meanwhile, organizers say other key recommendations will be tackled by the newly formed Monadnock Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Coalition. That includes setting measurable goals for racial equity in the community, conducting regular surveys and creating forums where community members feel safe sharing personal experiences with racism.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Hansel, who is a coalition member, said. “I think that the report came out with some short-term recommendations, which we’ve tried to make progress on. But at the end of the day, we’re gonna need a consistent effort on implementing some of these things that are big and affect major components of our community.”
A collective effort
The Monadnock Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Coalition grew out of existing efforts in the community.
As Keene’s racial justice committee came to a close last year, members felt the need for a structure to continue its work and see that its ideas were implemented. At the same time, the Keene Family YMCA and Cheshire Medical Center were also doing work around diversity, equity and inclusion.
The groups joined forces to launch the coalition, whose goal is to engage people, government entities, businesses and other organizations in making the Monadnock Region a more welcoming and inclusive place for all.
To create meaningful change, “the whole community really needs to embrace those same concepts,” said Dan Smith, CEO of the Keene Y, which is the legal host for the coalition. “… No one institution can do it alone. There needs to be group effort in it.”
The coalition’s steering committee includes most former members of the Keene racial justice committee, along with representatives from various local organizations and businesses and other community members.
Members say they’ve spent the past months building the organization, including the formation of committees focused on law enforcement, regional engagement, businesses, education, fundraising, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. (They’re actively seeking people interested in serving on those committees.)
Morton, who chairs the coalition, said the priority is to hire a full-time director who can coordinate local diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, including carrying out many of the Keene report’s recommendations.
“I think it’s great that the library’s doing their thing, the hospital, the universities, the private businesses, the chamber of commerce,” he said. “… Let’s get someone in there that can help to pull these together, to help coordinate, to help resource, to help support, so that all of the things that the good folks in our community are doing will lead to outcomes that are measurable.”
The group plans to fundraise for that position and other costs, with a preliminary two-year budget of $250,000, according to materials shared with the Granite State News Collaborative.
Coalition members said they intend to take up the Keene report’s call for more opportunities in which community members can make their voices heard, anonymously if they wish. Some of the racial justice committee members had expressed concern about whether they’d heard from everyone in the community and wondered whether law enforcement officials’ involvement in meetings may have made some people uncomfortable speaking.
Morton said the coalition plans to conduct racial equity and inclusion climate surveys, something the Keene report recommended, and use the results to inform its work.
“It is absolutely necessary to make certain we center the voices of our beloved community and that these voices and experiences guide our actions,” he said in an email.
Workman also noted that alongside committees on law enforcement, schools and other topics, the coalition includes a committee focused on people of color, so “if there is a concern for speaking freely, there is a space for that.”
Hockett said she hopes the coalition’s work can open some minds. She recalled that when the racial justice committee was active, she could be discouraged by online comments on news articles, mostly from white people, questioning why it was created and claiming “there’s no problem in Keene.”
“It’s hard to do this work,” she said. “It’s hard to want your voice heard, or know that your voice will be heard, or thinking it has value. That’s something I still struggle with.”
But she ultimately joined the coalition, after being encouraged by the YMCA’s Smith and thinking about the difference it could make, as well as her family’s long history in Keene.
“There’s gonna be other, younger kids coming up — and there are — that are coming up through the school system like me,” said Hockett, a 2001 Keene High School grad. “And I want them to see, hey, we are making some changes.”
This article is being shared by The Granite State News Collaborative, and was edited by The Keene Sentinel, a partner in the collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.