NOTE: The original version of this story cited an earlier draft of Johnson’s inclusivity statement. That statement was amended during the town’s 2019 annual meeting to include the sentence, "We reject racism, bigotry, discrimination, violence and hatred in all its forms."
Last year, the town of Johnson codified “kindness, gentleness, understanding, neighborliness, peace, tolerance and respect for and toward all.”
Now, the town is tackling racism.
The town select board and village trustees hope to form a committee that will recommend ways to educate the town about racial justice issues; ideas about public displays, such as Black Lives Matter flags; and policies and procedures to promote racial justice. Officials are looking for volunteers to serve on that committee.
Last year the town adopted an Inclusivity Statement that reads: “The people of Johnson embrace inclusiveness and together we will build bridges to understanding, ensuring that all who live, work and visit our town feel welcome and safe. We reject racism, bigotry, discrimination, violence and hatred in all its forms. The things we embrace are kindness, gentleness, understanding, neighborliness, peace, tolerance and respect for and toward all. Together we can have a cooperative, sustainable and thriving community where everyone is honored and valued.”
Some in Johnson have wondered if all people truly do feel welcome in town. For instance, the owner of Johnson Woolen Mills was roundly criticized for statements she made supporting what was perceived as a racist tweet by President Donald Trump — he suggested four Congresswomen of color “go back” to the countries “they originally came from,” even though three of them were born in the U.S. — while she was representing Vermont businesses in a White House visit.
Select Board member Kyle Nuse called for a boycott of the Woolen Mills, prompting some to wonder if “inclusivity” was only the purview of the politically progressive.
There’s also bureaucracy at play: some want to fly Black Lives Matter flags on telephone poles along Main Street, but those poles belong to the village government, not the town.
Town administrator Brian Story said working on the statement was good practice for addressing racial equality issues. For instance, town officials had training from the Vermont Human Rights Commission, something they are interested in the committee revisiting.
“I think that the lessons we learned from that apply here,” Story said.
Both the select board and village trustees — and their respective professional staff — already have their hands full with all the myriad aspects of running the municipality. And the select board was quick to denounce racism after a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, in May.
Thus, the desire for a committee that can dig into the myriad issues surrounding race.
“We are interested in having a wide representation on the committee,” Story said.
He likened it to a conservation committee. There are innumerably hunters, trappers and anglers and pig farmers who consider themselves conservationists. There are also plenty of people opposed to killing animals who consider themselves conservationists. Ideally, a committee would have representation from both sides.
Likewise, there are people whose opinions vary on things like white privilege, reparations, police defunding, affirmative action and the meaning of Black Lives Matter. There are, however, people who wouldn’t be invited to join.
“We would not think it’s appropriate to appoint someone to the racial justice committee who is a racist,” Story said. “That’s not something we’re willing to do.”