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At least six Vt. towns are considering a declaration of inclusion on Town Meeting Day

An illustration shows multiple hands coming together.
One hundred and thirty-five Vermont towns and cities have adopted declarations of inclusion — representing 74% of the state's population, according to organizers.

On Town Meeting Day this year, at least six Vermont municipalities will have voters decide whether to adopt a declaration of inclusion. A sample version of the statement says that the town condemns racism and commits to fair treatment of everyone regardless of race, religion, gender, and several other traits.

Since 2021, a nonprofit has led the effort to have each of Vermont's 247 towns and cities adopt the declaration.

Al Wakefield, a Mendon resident and retired executive consultant who is one of the founding members of the declaration initiative, spoke with Vermont Public’s Nathaniel Wilson about the project. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Nathaniel Wilson: What purpose does the declaration of inclusion serve? And why do Vermont cities and towns need to declare themselves as inclusive communities?

Al Wakefield smiles for a photo.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Al Wakefield

Al Wakefield: If Vermont is going to continue to grow and prosper, it needs to be able to attract people from all walks of life. We felt that the declaration of inclusion was one way of doing it. We are an aging population. We're losing our youth, young folks are not returning to Vermont. And the declaration of inclusion says that we welcome all people, especially those who've been historically marginalized. We welcome them to come, bring their families, build their businesses here, and over the long term, that should have a positive impact on Vermont's vitality and prosperity.

Nathaniel Wilson: Heading into this year's Town Meeting Day, 135 of Vermont's 247 towns and cities have already adopted a declaration of inclusion. What kind of work went into making that happen?

Al Wakefield: Certainly. There are five of us, Nathaniel, working on this. We started off with Bob Harnish and me and subsequently joined by Norm Cohen, Patti Lancaster, and Barbara Noyes Pulling.

And each of us, we almost – we work at this almost like account managers in that each one of us has X number of towns assigned to us. And so we started with the largest towns and cities and municipalities in Vermont, working towards the smallest.

And so the five of us each have responsibility for making initial contact with the town manager or the town administrator or town clerk – or the head of the select board if there's no town management, working with them to get on to the town's select board agenda. We make a five- to seven-minute presentation, answer any questions, and then the hope is that they will vote affirmatively – or as we are discussing right now, some select boards opt to defer to the town for a town vote.

Nathaniel Wilson: We've seen some pushback on the declaration as well. Highgate and Hubbardton approved statements before rescinding them last year. Select board members have said existing laws serve the same purpose or that their communities are already inclusive. How do you respond to people who say that the declaration is not needed in 2024?

Al Wakefield: Well, it's very interesting, Nathaniel, none of the towns, and there are two that you named, have told us explicitly why they decided to reject, to not adopt the declaration. Several others have tabled it for further visitation.

We respond in that Vermont may well be known for being a place for all people to come prosper and thrive. But there are many of us, and especially those who are marginalized know that while it's a good place to be, it's nowhere near as good as it can be, and certainly not where it says it actually is.

Implicit bias happens almost daily to many of us who are in those marginalized groups, and what we're saying with the declaration is that it's an opportunity to make Vermont unique, as it thinks it is – to say to the rest of the world that we are welcoming, especially those who have been historically marginalized.

Nathaniel Wilson: What kind of work goes into ensuring that cities and towns are holding up their end of the bargain after adopting a declaration?

Al Wakefield: Just yesterday, in fact, some 20 to 30 surveys went out to the original 30 towns that signed the declaration of inclusion. We're going systematically through from town number one to town number 135 or so over the next year to year and a half to see where they are. And so we'll hopefully begin to get some feedback on that survey in the next two or three weeks or so from towns. And we'll know whether they've not only agreed to adopt, but they've done something relevant to the adoption.

Nathaniel Wilson: And so we're now more than three years removed from the beginning of the declaration initiative. What are some of the lasting impacts of previously signed declarations across the state?

Al Wakefield: Several towns – notably, I think Middlebury, which was an early adopter – have established an equity committee. The town of Bethel, a contrasting town to Middlebury in many ways, was very, very aggressive about establishing a declaration, inclusion and equity committee. Winooski had moved along in doing the same thing, begun to implement many of the things that are outlined on our website.

Some towns are working with both the state's Office of Racial Equity as well as the Vermont League of Cities and Towns – they have a program in conjunction with Abundant Sun to train managers and town people on how to implement the principles of the declaration of inclusion.

Nathaniel Wilson: And what kind of work is your team doing now to grow the list of towns with declarations moving forward?

Al Wakefield: We’ve got 115, 116 towns to go and so we're working day by day to get to the remaining 116 while, as I said earlier, following up on the original 135.

This piece of it, quite honestly, is going to be more difficult. We're talking about smaller towns that are more remote, that don't have Zoom or other virtual platforms. And so the labor is more intense, and quite honestly, smaller towns don't see themselves as having an opportunity, as expressed through the declaration of inclusion and so that there probably is more in the way of dialogue that has to occur with them than perhaps has to occur with communities that are more diverse now, such as the ones that I just named.

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