Westport adopts diversity, equity and inclusion statement

Harold Bailey Jr., chair of Team Westport, spoke at the Board of Selectmen meeting on Oct. 13, 2021.

Harold Bailey Jr., chair of Team Westport, spoke at the Board of Selectmen meeting on Oct. 13, 2021.

Screenshot from the Town of Westport feed of the Board of Selectmen meeting.

WESTPORT — The Westport Board of Selectmen’s unanimous approval of a townwide diversity, equity and inclusion statement was met with applause during the board’s Wednesday morning meeting. But town officials were quick to point out that the statement is just one step in making Westport a more inclusive and welcoming place.

“This is a challenge that’s never done,” said First Selectman Jim Marpe early in the meeting.

The board has been mulling such a statement for a while, but Marpe said it seemed particularly relevant now, in the wake of recent townwide discussions on racism and other forms of discrimination.

During the meeting, Marpe made reference to the recent appearance of the website Westport Parents 06880, an anonymous group that has criticized the “increasing focus” on racism in the town’s schools and in the community. Though the group claims to reject “political activism and moralizing intrusions into the classroom,” many in the community have called its rhetoric divisive and hurtful.

“It seemed appropriate that we address these issues in light of recent events,” Marpe said before introducing the proposed statement.

The statement pledges that Westport “is committed to fostering a civic culture that provides the equitable respect, belonging and treatment of all citizens, students, employees and visitors by its populace, government, schools, businesses and organizations. That commitment extends across all community segments including but not limited to races, ethnicities, religions, genders, abilities and LGBTQIA+.”

There are also multiple commitment action items within the statement, including “proactively identifying and dismantling systemic inequities and ‘othering,’” and providing training in equity and inclusion for elected officials and employees. 

“Many of these pledges we make in here we’re already in the middle of actually doing,” said Second Selectwoman Jen Tooker, who is also the Republican candidate for first selectman. “It’s an action document. It’s not just a statement.”

A driving force behind the statement was TEAM Westport, a group whose name stands for “Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism” and that aims to make Westport a more welcoming community.

TEAM chair Harold Bailey, Jr., who is Black, spoke at the meeting and said that the statement “represents work that’s gone on here on TEAM Westport for the past 18 years.” He said there’s been an increasing focus on these issues in the past few years.

“What’s important is the breadth of what we’re talking about here,” he said. “And really what we’re talking about is a statement against ‘othering.’ A statement that says welcoming means we recognize that it’s not just Black and brown people. It’s not just Asian Americans alone. It’s not anti-Semitism alone. It’s all these categories that we talk about here, people that can be marginalized.”

There was more than an hour of discussion on the proposed statement, including comments from several members of the public. Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Thomas spoke and said, though she lives in Norwalk, Westport is one of the towns she represents in the Legislature.

Thomas, who is Black, applauded the statement and said she believes it will be good for the town as a whole, and particularly for young residents. “If the town I was living in when I was young put out a statement like this, it would have changed my life,” she said.

Her fellow state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who is the Democratic candidate for first selectman, also spoke in praise of the statement, though he said he wished the statement’s approval wasn’t coming in the midst of the Westport Parents 06880 controversy, “because it makes it seems as if this is a reaction to that, rather than something we should and have been saying all along.”

The parents group did come up several times during the discussion. Selectwoman Melissa Kane said she was particularly disturbed by the fact that the group is anonymous. Marpe expressed concerns that the group uses town hall’s address as its mailing address and emphasized that Town Hall has no connection to Westport Parents 06880.

“I’ve talked to our attorneys and there’s not much we can do about this,” Marpe said.

Ultimately Kane proposed adding an amendment to the Board of Selectman’s motion to adopt the statement that the board also would “denounce efforts to divide and instill fear in our community based on characteristics including, but not limited to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, ability and LGBTQIA+.”

The amendment passed unanimously, and was followed by the unanimous passage of the statement.