Washington College students voice support for Human Rights Commission through a letter to the mayor

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

Representatives from Washington College’s Student Government Association supported Chestertown’s proposed Human Rights Commission through a letter to Mayor Chris Cerino. 

SGA Secretary of Service and Community Relations sophomore Maegan White, who regularly attends Town Council meetings, wrote and garnered signatures for the letter after hearing opposition to the proposed Human Rights Commission at the Oct. 26 public discussion.

The letter voices support for the Commission, writing that it is “the most productive and meaningful way that racial incidents and other human rights violations can be addressed by the town.”

The Humans Right Commission proposal arose from the Chestertown Unites Against Racism movement, originating in Resolution 02-2020. 

Resolution 02-2020 includes five points: that the Mayor and Council of Chestertown apologize for slavery in Chestertown and its effects; they acknowledge and honor the positive contributions of African Americans in creating and preserving Chestertown; they affirm that all citizens of Chestertown have equal rights, access to goods and services, treatment by law enforcement, abilities to start and maintain businesses, and access to housing and employment; they proclaim that racism is a human rights issue, and they commit to establishing a Human Rights Commission.

Points one through four were unanimously accepted by the Council, but reservations were raised about the fifth point, especially around a revision which described the Commission as an independent board.

Resolution 02-2020 was formally adopted in its entirety at the Oct. 5 Town Council meeting, after the “independent” descriptor was struck.

Thus, the version of the Human Rights Commission to which they voiced support is tasked with “gathering information for review, analyze data, and make necessary recommendations toward the effort of resolving allegations of discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation, and other human relations areas by Town agencies and by business.” 

The resolution also says the proposed Commission would comprise at least 50% people of color and would issue an annual racial justice and equity report. 

However, resolutions only voice the will of a governing body, they do not promise action. Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver thus introduced Ordinance 07-2020 — originally named Ordinance 06-2020 — at the Oct. 5 meeting, the passage of which would prompt action on the issue.

A public meeting regarding Ordinance 07-2020 occurred on Oct. 26, where there were mixed reactions to the Commission.

While there was consensus that there is momentum to address systemic racial inequalities, many felt that the Commission would function better at a county-level.

Speakers cited the lack of precedence for a city of Chestertown’s size having such a commission; the idea that Kent County needed to be more responsive to racial inequality; and that some issues such as education were better addressed by the county as reasons why the Commission may function better on the county-level.

Others voiced concerns around privacy, especially for business owners and employees; around how the Commission decides a complaint is justified; and around what to expect as outcomes from Commission mediations.

Some commentators argued that the Commission is an opportunity to reach out to disadvantaged groups and support them and that establishing a city-level Commission could provide momentum to petition the county for a Commission. 

White said the opposition to Ordinance 07-2020 at the public hearing sparked her desire to write the letter in support of the Commission. She was surprised by the opposition at the public meeting, but knew she was not prepared to speak in support at that moment, so she searched for ways to voice support afterward.

After the meeting, White reached out to Tolliver, who said the best way to voice student support for the Commission was by writing a letter to Cerino.

White did just that, writing the letter and sending it to the SGA Review Board, Executive Board, and Senate for additional support.

The letter addresses concerns voiced at the meeting while focusing on unity between the students and Chestertown. 

The letter notes that while Kent County should “be actively seeking ways and programs so they can properly address the human rights violations that have occurred in Kent County,” that “does not negate the need for the city to also take action.”

White said she also wanted the letter to focus on the relationship between the town’s and students’ experiences. 

This aspect appears in the first paragraph where White draws similarities between the town’s experiences and those of students by stating that “racial incidents that have happened on campus and in the Chestertown community need to be addressed.”

“My hope is that in terms of the culture, both the students’ view of the town and the town’s view of the students, can start to change from otherisms to a we-situation,” White said. “It’s working with each other, recognition that if something happens in the town, it affects students; if something happens on-campus, it affects the town.”

While conversations continue to occur in the Town Council— the letter itself was read at the Nov. 2 meeting and the ordinance was expanded to include more diverse identities, such as LGBTQIA affinities, on Nov. 16— White said the Commission experienced broad support from students with whom she spoke.

“I think everyone was very much on-board with it because this idea of creating something that is going to support human rights and address rights violations is a universal thing that you’d think would be supported,” White said.

White said it is important to note this letter is not exclusive to the SGA and they want more students to become involved.

If any students are interested in the ongoing conversation and want to get involved, Chestertown Town Council meetings arelive-streamed and archived. They can also speak with White about involvement opportunities at mwhite6@washcoll.edu.

“We have students who have a voice, and even if in the past it hasn’t been heard at the town-level, we have it and we want to work with the town community,” White said. “The students and the town have this bond…and it’s something we all want to work on.”

Featured Photo caption: While Chestertown’s Mayor and Town Council meetings have moved to an online format, conversations around town policy continue to proliferate, especially regarding the establishment of a Human Rights Commission. Photo by Marah Vain Callahan.

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