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SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. – Candidates for Town Council and School Committee took part in a forum on racism and building an anti-racist community on Oct. 18 in South Kingstown.

The forum was moderated by TASK, or Toward an Antiracist South Kingstown. The group formed in the summer after nationwide protests erupted over the police killing of George Floyd.

South Kingstown saw its own demonstrations during the summer, and both the council and the School Committee heard from dozens of residents at online meetings about incidents of racism or cultural bias against them over the years.

TASK member Mwangi Gitahi said the forum was the third in recent months. Gitahi is a South Kingstown High School graduate and his family has lived in town for almost 30 years.  

“We’re an organizing group of parents, students and community members dedicated to pursuing anti-racist policies in our town,” Gitahi said.

The School Committee this year has committed to several reforms at the insistence of TASK, including  the creation of an ethnic studies course, required for graduation starting with the Class of 2024, and an audit of the curriculum to ensure it includes “cultural equity” and representation of minorities.

Council candidates Deborah Kelso, Jim Lathrop, Jess Rose, Deborah Bergner, Dorald Beasley and Abel Collins took part. From the School Committee candidates, Christie Fish, Melissa Boyd, Paula Whitford, Michelle Brousseau, Bob Hicks, Jacy Northup and Karen Humes participated.

Questions came from members of the community, and candidates had a minute to give an answer during the Zoom forum.

Discussion kicked off with the candidates giving their views on what an anti-racist South Kingstown would look like.

“We will have young people in town who are not in fear of being stopped by the police because of the color of their skin,”  Brousseau, an incumbent School Committee member, said. She also said students should be given support for taking and succeeding in high-level courses.

Hicks, a former town school superintendent, called being anti-racist the difference between well-meaning people who do nothing and well-meaning people who do something.

“You help people who make mistakes, who show bias in some way, understand what the bias is,” Hicks said. “You look for the artifacts of racism, you confront it in a constructive manner and take direct action.”

Bergner said the work involves a “deep dive” into policies and procedures that perpetuate racism.

“Whether that’s in zoning, health care, education, or the criminal justice system, it’s an ongoing commitment to reviewing those policies,” she said.

Rose said South Kingstown could increase its housing density by changing zoning ordinances, with the ultimate goal of addressing affordable housing shortages.

Lathrop, the only Republican on the ticket, said part of the conveyance tax revenue should be directed to affordable housing.

“I don’t think it should go to just building new homes. I think a forgiving loan program is also a big part of it,” he said. Home ownership will build community spirit, he said.

Collins noted the town has several affordable housing initiatives “on deck,” such as zoning for affordable cottage-type units.

“All of those can be helped by diverting more money into the affordable housing trust fund. I’d like to see 50% of proceeds of that go to affordable housing for seed money, whether it’s going to secure grants or a revolving loan program,” Collins said.

Kelso said the town should establish a “people trust” loan program to allow entry-level home owners to get into the market.

“Right now the entry-level market is unaffordable. I am a huge fan of putting money into that fund every year,” she said.

Switching to school issues, Fish said teachers require more training and professional development to help address racism in the schools.

“I know right now we have a curriculum coordinator that is auditing the curriculum, and that’s a good first step. But once it’s audited, we need to audit teacher practices as well,” she said.

Humes said curriculum needs to be written and designed with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) leaders, and the committee should dedicate the budget toward it.

“We also need to ensure our BIPOC students are engaged with opportunities in fine arts and music,” she said.

Boyd added that the schools should look for people with experience in addressing systemic racism.

“We can do that with our partners right down the road at URI,” she said. “There are professionals in our community equity and diversity office as well as educators who can be guests and who are scholars in this arena who can help today,” Boyd said.

A recent high school graduate asked the candidates about changing the high school’s Rebel mascot, which could be associated with the southern Confederacy.

“I’m in full favor of changing it to fit the South Kingstown that we are today,” Northup said.

Whitford agreed that the community has to be involved in whatever move is made.

“It’s a discussion we need to have and a decision we all need to make,” she said.

Diversity in hiring should apply to all town departments, the candidates said.

“We should do whatever we can to make sure people of all colors have an opportunity to work in this town,” Beasley said, adding that custodial employees should be given a pay boost due to their added COVID-19 work.

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