National controversy prompts friends to take local action


Bob Harnish Al Wakefield
TWO FRIENDS, BOB Harnish and Al Wakefield are waging a campaign to encourage towns to become more inclusive.

PITTSFORD — Bob Harnish watched the national conversations and controversy around police brutality in May 2020 and knew he wanted to get involved.

Since then, Harnish – a Pittsford resident who is white and in his early 80s – has been dedicating much of his time encouraging municipalities to adopt a declaration of inclusion.

“A declaration of inclusion is just words,” Harnish told the Reporter, “though it can be a wonderful beginning in the sense that it then inspires the selectboard to say, ‘Oh, okay, let’s think about this.’” 

The declaration Harnish proposes says that towns signing on “condemn racism and welcome all persons, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age, or disability and want everyone to feel safe and welcome in (the) community.”

The declaration also condemns discrimination and commits to fair and equal treatment of everyone in the community.

Harnish says the declaration – which has already been adopted by 25 Vermont municipalities – is just a first step towns can take to become more inclusive and welcoming toward Vermonters of color.

He says that other steps towns can take to be more inclusive are forming an equity committee – which sometimes comes before a town adopts the declaration of inclusion – and reviewing municipal policies and documents to root out implicit bias.

“You’d be surprised how many things are written that do not take into account that we are a diverse population,” said Al Wakefield, a friend of Harnish’s who has also been working to get towns to adopt declarations of inclusion.

Wakefield, who is Black and also in his early 80s, said it’s important to word laws and train employees in ways that eliminate questions of race when reviewing how a situation has played out.

“You want to be in a position where race is not a question,” Wakefield said. “(Someone) may have poor judgement or organization, but they’re doing right by the people they have responsibility for.”

Wakefield says this is especially true of public servants, such as police officers, adding that he hopes to see towns implementing trainings for people responsible for public safety.

And adopting the declaration isn’t just the moral thing to do, Harnish says. It could prompt economic growth.

“There’s also a huge economic component,” he said. “Think about the recent census – in ten years, Vermont barely gained 2% in population and at the same time Rutland County lost population…. We’ve got to bring people into the state or the state’s going to reach financial collapse.”

Harnish said that advertising towns – and, more broadly, the state of Vermont – as welcoming could draw people in who might not otherwise think of Vermont as a possible place to settle.

“The first thing after a town adopts (the declaration) is to make sure they’re getting some publicity for it,” Harnish said. “If it’s a bigger town that has some economic development component, those folks on the economic development side ought to be showing that the town is welcoming of people and…diversity.”

Wakefield and Harnish say there are many directions towns can go after adopting a declaration of inclusion to broaden their communities. But though the men are happy to give suggestions, they say that those next steps are mostly up to each town or city. 

Harnish and Wakefield are instead more concerned with encouraging the declaration’s adoption.

“From my perspective, with the towns, we’ve got as much as we can handle,” Wakefield said.

And for a small group of volunteers, reaching out to Vermont municipalities to talk about adopting a declaration of inclusion is a full-time job.

It’s also one Harnish and Wakefield won’t be giving up anytime soon.

“It’s just one step in the whole equity movement,” Harnish said. “But it’s our step, and we’re sticking with it.”

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