Students question Chestertown leadership regarding racial bias incidents, environment, COVID-19, and spring semester

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

The Student Government Association hosted the first of three panels in the “We Love This Place” series: the Chestertown Leadership Panel, on Monday, Sept. 28.

Sophomore and SGA Secretary of Service and Community Engagement Maegan White moderated the Panel, introducing it as a method through which “students can stay engaged and connected with the Chestertown community even from our hometowns.”

Panelists included Mayor of Chestertown Chris Cerino; Council Member for the First Ward David Foster; Council Member for the Second Ward Thomas Herz; Council Member for the Third Ward Rev. Ellsworth Tolliver; Council Member for the Fourth Ward Meghan Efland; Economic Development Coordinator, Arts and Entertainment District Manager, and Executive Director of the Chestertown Mainstreet Program Kay MacIntosh; and Owner of The Finishing Touch Bob Ramsey.

The idea of hosting the Panel arose from the community engagement portion of “We Love This Place,” seeking to grow connections between students and town leadership, according to White. This was something in which the Town Council showed interest: wanting to work closer with students.

The first part of the Panel consisted of two moderated questions: What does the “Chestertown Unites Against Racism” initiative entail for the town, and how can students support Chestertown?

Regarding the Chestertown United Against Racism question, Cerino began the dialogue by saying that “with the George Floyd incident, we had…several demonstrations in Chestertown.”

“I was really impressed with how engaged the community was,” Cerino said. “That was something that happened out in Minnesota, but it was galvanizing for the whole nation and Chestertown was touched as well.”

Cerino said that the entire time he was watching the events, he was thinking about what the town can do to address systemic racism in Chestertown.

These initial thoughts developed into the Chestertown Unites Against Racism initiative, a 16-month plan which works to codify what the town can do to address systemic racism.

According to Cerino, 16 months was chosen because three of the five seats on the Town Council will be up for election by November 2021, thus it gives the Town Council a timespan to see what they can address before a possible 60% overturn.

The plan itself is split into three pillars: education, legislation, and unification.

Education includes any activity that can help educate the Chestertown community about race relations, including historic people and areas.

Legislation includes topics such as policing reforms and zoning ordinances.

Unification is any event that the Council can create to bring people together, including possibly making Juneteenth an annual town-recognized holiday.

Cerino also discussed the creation of an Equity Advisory Committee which would, hopefully, consist of “mostly minority residents of the community who will act as a sounding board to guide us to implement some of these initiatives.”

According to Rev. Tolliver, they are also creating a resolution to condemn slavery and working towards adopting a human rights provision which would create a place for people to bring their grievances to an independent governing association.

In regard to a question about the 16-month plan’s progress by sophomore Dylan Snow, Rev. Tolliver also said the Town Council is currently negotiating the human rights commission, which would be created by the aforementioned provision. 

The current draft for the commission includes founding an independent body that will review requests from town members regarding discrimination. The commission would then forward that information to the appropriate place for resolution.

According to Herz, the 16-month plan does not end at 16 months. They are taking other steps along the way, such as founding the human rights commission, creating a full-sized basketball court in the Ajax lot — a historically Black part of town where many youth come — and creating a playground in Wilmer Park.

Another aspect of Chestertown uniting against racism included the painting of two murals on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19.

Rev. Tolliver said that he believes the ideas of the murals go back to March when racial bias incidents occurred at WC. After the incidents, students came to the Town Council and told them that there were issues in the town they needed to address.

“The protests, and the peaceful protests I might add, occurred which led us to the point of having an open, public symbol of acknowledgement for the community,” Rev. Tolliver said.

According Rev. Tolliver, the murals, which read “Black Lives Matter: Chestertown Unites Against Racism” and “We Can’t Breathe: Chestertown Unites Against Racism,” arose from the efforts of three women — Wanda Boyer, Maria Wood, and Arlene Lee — who felt that “there was an open statement that needed to be made about the need to recognize and acknowledge the Black community in Chestertown.”

Foster added that, speaking as someone who was not initially in favor of the murals, it was not until he was fully engaged with other people on building these murals that he realized what it could mean.

“The mural really has…become a wonderful starting point for reuniting together against racism. I think all five of us, or seven with the community, really is determined to go beyond just the symbolic gestures and make a difference here,” Foster said.

“All of these things, we hope, will start to build a sense of community, and out of that sense of community, a sense of dialogue,” Herz said. “While some of these things may initially seem divisive, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural for one and the ‘We Can’t Breathe’ mural as another, what they do in the longer term is start conversation.”

According to White, the next topic — how WC students can support Chestertown businesses when they are not in Chestertown — came from earlier outreach programs, such as the Buy Now – Enjoy Later initiative which was shared by SGA in April 2020, and the economic stress affecting small businesses in Chestertown.

According to MacIntosh, the best way to support the town is to purchase gift certificates. Most businesses are open in Chestertown, and both masks and social distancing are being treated with importance.

MacIntosh and Ramsey both supported the idea of students engaging with businesses on social media.

“I challenge [the student community] to explore all the businesses either virtually or, if they’re in town, by coming downtown,” Ramsey said.

After the moderated questions ended, White opened the floor to student questions.

Student questions addressed many topics, including diversity, equity, and inclusivity; environmental movements; and the opinion of the town regarding in-person classes for the spring semester.

After Snow asked his aforementioned question, which regarded the process of the 16-month plan, freshman Abigail Collins followed.

Collins asked the Town Council how they can prevent future racial bias incidents “like what happened earlier this year with Kent County students,” and how they can address the behavior of “these same people [who] also make the plaza [by Acme], where they all hang out, feel unsafe to others where their drinking, smoking, and fighting happens.” 

As a graduate of Kent County High School, Collins said in a later interview that she drew back on her memories of the last academic year in considering her question, specifically how she felt when she learned about the racial bias incidents at WC which were initiated by KCHS students in November 2019. 

During that time, Collins said she was “furious,” finding it unfair that people were making anyone feel unsafe and unwelcome in a space that should be their home. 

She was also upset with how the situation was handled, saying that little action was taken by the high school until multiple incidents occurred. When action was taken, Collins said the punishment included the canceling of a pep rally which was hosted by uninvolved students, and, as she said in her question, “one of [the students] was even up for graduation awards.”

Rev. Tolliver answered, saying that the plaza property is private, thus it has been a persistent problem for law enforcement agents to monitor. However, “the best way that we as council members and as elected officials can deal with these incidents is pretty much what we are doing right now.”

He said that the 16-month plan and other resolutions take a step from the symbolic actions of the street murals towards developing policy.

“Does that mean it is going to work every time? No, it doesn’t. But it moves us one step closer to the offending person, and it also lets them know that sooner or later, their behavior will no longer be tolerated,” Rev. Tolliver said.

Cerino added that the racial bias incidents on campus are a challenge for the town to address, because the College is a private entity with its own security team which is the first responder. So, when Public Safety feels there is something which requires outside assistance, Chestertown Police Department is often not called until hours or a day later.

“There’s not a lot I can do, honestly, if that’s a wide-open avenue, to prevent someone from driving through there, it’s not illegal,” Cerino said.

He elaborated that the yelling of racial slurs, which occurred during the recurring racial bias incidents, is wrong but is also in a legal gray area.  

Hertz said that one aspect elected officials learn is how little they can influence by just “bringing the hammer down on somebody.” 

“We want to do everything we can to prevent it, but in terms of our police force, it is a very vexing and challenging problem with no easy answer. I think we need to work collaboratively with the school, potentially up the security there that makes these types of incidents harder to pull off,” Cerino said.

Part of this process may be justice programs, such as the creation of a restorative justice system, which allows perpetrators and victims to have a dialogue from “a place of mutual respect and trust,” coming up with a way to remedy the transgression.

“It’s really easy to come at it hot, and you should. Do that, definitely hold our feet to the fire, but then don’t get frustrated when we say there isn’t a lot we can do in the terms of what you’re asking for. There is a lot of what we can do in terms of working individually with people…it just isn’t as satisfying as taking a guy or a gal and throwing them in a jail cell and forgetting about them,” Herz said. “We have to do the hard work of dialogue and helping people understand what’s possible, what they’ve done, and how it harmed people.”

Efland said that another change which may affect this is reforming the ways in which police and the community interact. This might be partially done through initiatives in the police department to establish a community police officer, bicycle officers, and engaging in more foot patrol.

Broadening the focus to Kent County, Foster discussed the need to reach outside of the Chestertown boundaries to unite against racism, including to KCHS, recognizing the work students are doing to combat racism on the high school campus.

After the Panel, Collins said she did not feel that respondents fully answered her question.

She wished they had spoken on the safety of students and felt that comments about not being able to prevent incidents were insufficient, especially regarding illegal behavior in the plaza.

The town being able to paint murals but not prevent incidents felt superficial to Collins.

“The murals are amazing, I never thought they’d get pushed through. But we need more action, not just superficial measures,” Collins said. “We need to do more.”

Sophomore and President of the Class of 2023 Jonah Nicholson followed with two questions in a similar vein as Collins’s. 

His first question asked how Chestertown can reach out to WC students.

In terms of reaching out to the students, Cerino said it is difficult due to the distance, but that he enjoys events such as the Leadership Panel. 

“It’s got to be a two-way street. You’re right. You guys reach out to us and we reach out to you, and we both got to be working together to get to know each other a little bit,” Cerino said.

The second question regarded the Chestertown Spy and interacting with them.

“Last year, after The Foreigner was canceled, the Chestertown Spy posted an article about what happened, and there were comments under this article. And I believe the Chestertown Spy, in my opinion and in others’ opinions as well, contributed to the racial incidents and students on campus fearing even going into Chestertown because of what this article was saying and how it had portrayed [students]. So, my question is, what can students know about the Chestertown Spy, is someone on our campus reporting, could someone potentially be on our campus reporting, or is someone just walking through Chestertown getting the information? Any information would be helpful on that,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson explained in a later interview that he wanted to ask about the Chestertown Spy because his only interaction with them was their article on The Foreigner, on which the comment section was “basically calling us snowflakes.” This started a wave of reactions, according to Nicholson, which included some students feeling uncomfortable in Chestertown because they felt that the town did not want them there.

He also explained that he felt the article indirectly sparked the racial bias incidents, because the article took the conversation from being on-campus, to in Chestertown, then throughout the entire community.

“The general reaction was that we [Black students] are weak,” Nicholson said. “A lot of the cancellation was blamed on Black students, and I think that conversation reached the high school.”

Cerino responded that “unfortunately, the town government doesn’t really control what our papers print,” but he described Publisher of the Chestertown Spy Dave Wheelan as a congenial and open-minded person who would likely give Nicholson a platform to express his concerns.

Rev. Tolliver said that it “is difficult to put any control on what is written, beyond coming back with something else that you may feel passionate enough to respond to,” but Black students should know that the Black community supports them and will make themselves available.

“You got to let us know that you need us, how to contact you, and what we can do to best support your experience here on-campus and in Chestertown,” Rev. Tolliver said.

Later during the question and answer period, Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Michael Harvey responded to Nicholson’s and Cerino’s comments regarding the Chestertown Spy

“Jonah brought up the Chestertown Spy as if it is a problem. The Chestertown Spy is not a problem, it is a great newspaper. It is a voice of the public — massively underfunded — that helps tell the stories of our community. Local reporting is massively under threat in the world today. It is really important to keep local voices alive,” Dr. Harvey said. 

He added that as one reads through the Chestertown Spy, one will come across stories about “everybody [who] you would want their stories told in the Chestertown Spy. It is committed to helping us all understand the stories of our community from every perspective and every angle.”

Dr. Harvey then addressed Cerino’s comment, saying that “you started off by saying ‘unfortunately we don’t control what the Spy says,’ I know you didn’t mean that for just one second.” He elaborated that this skepticism is because it is a part of American identity that governments have limited abilities to affect free speech. 

Addressing Nicholson, Dr. Harvey said that, “when you act in the world, not everyone is going to agree. That’s ok…The decision to shut down a play last year has to be understood as one of the most controversial things in a long time to happen at the College. That is not criticism of the decision, that’s not an endorsement of the decision, I’m just saying it was deeply controversial… Because it pitted two deeply fundamental values against each other: a deep, deep cry for justice and equity, particularly in light of a long-neglected arrogant dismissal of the lives and meaning of a huge important part of our community, and the absolute sincere desire to tell that story and to change the prevailing assumptions of the College and the voices of privilege that did not even pay attention to that story.” 

“But freedom is one of the greatest core American values, and it is not surprising that people of goodwill will take more convincing that freedom is worth sacrificing in this particular area. I’m not saying anything was right or anything was wrong, but that’s what makes being a citizen in a democracy great,” Dr. Harvey said. “The beauty of a community is we have to put the work in to try and persuade each other, and bottom line, entities like the Chestertown Spy only helps us do that.”

Nicholson responded to Dr. Harvey, saying that “I totally understand where you’re coming from. But what I want to make clear is that I had never heard of the Chestertown Spy, and my first experience with them was putting out this article, and after this article came out there was this wave of reactions that me being a Black student at WC didn’t make me feel comfortable. To be honest, no offense, I really don’t care if they put out good stories, if they’re an important entity in the town. My thing is my first experience with them was not good. I’m not saying they’re filled with bad people; I’m just saying that article, the comments under it, and the reactions we got afterward were not a good experience with them.” 

“As Black students, we have had to deal with a lot on this campus. A lot of factors contributed to our uncomfortableness, and part of that was the Chestertown Spy. Because I did not feel comfortable with that article, I did not feel comfortable with what was said in that article, the comments under it, or the reactions from the townsfolk. I’m not saying that all townsfolk had reacted in the same way, but what I will say is I think part of the reason why those racist incidents happened is because of the Chestertown Spy. I understand why you believe they are a good entity in the town, but as a Black student I do not believe that because my first experience with them was not one of a good nature,” Nicholson said.

Dr. Harvey said in a later interview that his favorite part of the Panel was the question and answer section, because it created a dialogue. 

The entire panel, according to Dr. Harvey, was an act of grassroots democracy “building community through talking and listening.”

Part of that dialogue was adding his voice to the conversation, because he had a different perspective from Nicholson and Cerino. He said that he “was not speaking to correct anyone,” but because he is a fan of journalism, of free speech, and especially of community newspapers. 

“We live in a world that is dangerous for journalism…it doesn’t mean the news is always right,” Dr. Harvey said. “But it’s critical to a free society.”

According to Dr. Harvey, local news can also help address the same issues that made students unsafe by contributing new perspectives to a dialogue.

“What I heard was, we have a community that requires work to nurture and make better — some of which is helping others understand the wider picture,” Dr. Harvey said. “It’s ok to challenge, to push back, to agree and disagree.”

In a later interview, Nicholson said, “[Dr. Harvey] was giving his perspective on what the Spy was. I respect him as a professor, a teacher, and a friend.”

Dr. Harvey’s response did not affect Nicholson’s thinking. Nicholson said that he is “confident in [his] beliefs,” especially because he experienced this negative impact firsthand.

However, a thread through Cerino’s, and later MacIntosh’s, response to Nicholson’s question was that he should reach out to members of the Chestertown Spy to speak with them directly.

Nicholson said, “I’m thinking about [contacting the Chestertown Spy],” but it’s a difficult process because “it’s confronting an entity that played a part in, what for me, was a negative experience.” Because of that connection, he wants to know exactly what he wants to say. “I want to be professional and say what I mean and how I feel.”

He also wants to see if other students want to join him in the conversation.

Following Nicholson was junior and President of the Class of 2022 Mason Drummey, who asked the Panel about the Chestertown community’s opinion on in-person classes for the spring semester.

Cerino said that the challenge of Chestertown and bringing students back is that it has an older population. 

College-aged students, who might be asymptomatic carriers, may pose the possibility of transmitting COVID-19 to older people. 

“I support what the College wants to do as long as we are all taking every precaution possible to make sure everyone is safe,” Cerino said.

Cerino said that Chestertown lost over 30 people to COVID-19 because some of the nursing homes had outbreaks. 

Herz added that it is too soon to tell how the spring semester will look, and currently the Kent County infection rates are rising. However, he has been heartened that “everyone is trying their best to do things that will give y’all the best college experience you can have in a safe way, and learn as much as you can so you can go out into the world and stop the next pandemic.”

Foster said that he hopes WC can have in-person classes in the spring. Regarding the fall semester, one of the major barriers was a lack of quick turnaround COVID-19 testing, which he says has since improved.

Returning to campus also requires “a very responsible student body,” according to Foster, as seen in the opening and subsequent closing of schools such as the University of North Carolina, which closed campus due to COVID-19 earlier in the semester.

But, Efland said that the students are missed in the Chestertown community.

“Know that you are missed,” Efland said. “You guys are part of the town and there is a hole without you here.”

Drummey said in a later interview that, “I went to the Panel gung-ho for the Spring.”

However, when he learned that over 30 people in Chestertown passed from complications related to COVID-19, he was surprised. Going forward, he is now wondering how the pandemic will develop by the spring semester, and if a student presence will increase the risk of outbreak.

“I want to return, but I don’t want to do it wrong,” Drummey said. “I do think that as a student body, we must make sacrifices this spring to make it happen. And I think we’re ready for that.”

He added that it is important to caution “it is not only the Spring semester being gambled, it’s life.”

Another question posed regarded how environmental initiatives were affected by COVID-19.

SGA Secretary of the Environment and sophomore Seyed Marjaei said that he and the Chestertown team have spoken about their environmental initiatives, and they will be discussing the topic further in November’s “We Love This Place” panel, which will center on WC’s environmental impact.

Cerino said that from mid-March to April, everything took a backseat to the pandemic, then social justice topics have dominated conversation for the past few months.

One of the final questions was posed by Nicholson, who asked the Town Council to promise “change will happen, that you will work towards it, any promises you make or believe is appropriate you will try to do to help the betterment of the relationship between WC and Chestertown.”

Nicholson later explained that this question arose from his years in student government. When he was part of high school student government, he often heard promises but saw no change. When that did not change in college, he decided to advocate for change, not only talks.

“I made a promise to myself…to always ask that question,” Nicholson said.

Cerino said that the pathway has been set towards change, with the human rights committee, the equity advisory committee, and other aspects of the 16-month plan.

“I do think we are on the right path, although it can be very frustrating, because government is clumsy,” Cerino said.

Featured Photo caption: The Student Government Association invited seven panelists to participate in their Chestertown Leadership Panel, the first of three in the “We Love This Place” series. Photo Courtesy of Maegan White.

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