By Cecilia Cress and Olivia Montes
Chestertown Mayor David Foster joined Washington College’s Black Student Union in Litrenta Lecture Hall on Dec. 2 for the last chapter meeting of the semester.
During this meeting, members of BSU as well as other students had the opportunity to ask Foster questions and discuss plans to improve the relationship between WC students and residents of Chestertown.
“What I’m really hoping is that in a conversation, we can talk about what problems are ongoing, with particular emphasis on what we can do to solve some of those, and then get your ideas on what we can do to make what I think is a good town, even better,” Foster said.
The discussion was facilitated by BSU advisor Erneatka Webster and BSU President junior Jonah Nicholson. It centered around the discomfort and frustration students, especially Black students, felt in Chestertown in regards to factors like personal respect and physical safety, and what Foster will do to address these concerns.
Students discussed with Foster the idea of having a chair created on the town council to fill the role of diversity liaison, an individual whose job would be overseeing these student concerns; working toward furthering proposed initiatives; and fostering a greater sense of community between WC students and residents of Chestertown.
A student said it would be helpful to have a diversity or equity chair on the town council “actively engaging with the community to make sure that all inhabitants feel safe, and they feel welcome, especially those who are minorities.”
“There’s not a seat on that committee specifically for that. We do have something that’s called the Equity Advisory Committee, John Queen heads that,” Foster said. “The intention is for that group to identify various issues and concerns and bring it to the Council’s attention.”
Foster also walked those present through the intentions behind the Black Lives Matter mural that was painted in Chestertown.
“It was an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity against those who felt — entirely too many people who felt — that Black lives didn’t matter,” Foster said. “It says, ‘Black Lives Matter. Chestertown Unites Against Racism.’ It was simply one way to show solidarity, but it was not a solution.”
“What can you actually do to create structural change besides a Black Lives Matter mural? Because that’s very performative, it doesn’t actually do anything,” one student said.
Foster also said he originally did not support the construction of the mural while he was on the town council, because he was afraid of potential lawsuits from individuals who did not agree with the Black Lives Matter message.
“How many lawsuits can we handle? Is this the best way of expressing solidarity? Could we not do this with banners, could we not do it with speeches?” Foster said. “Rightly or wrongly, I was one of those who said, ‘let’s study this issue.’”
Students present at the meeting expressed frustration that while Chestertown officials say they stand in solidarity with students and are dedicated to fixing issues that are raised, students don’t feel like anything changed or that their voices are being heard.
“We have been expressing time and time again how to make up solutions, what you guys need to do. And we’ve reached a point where we’re sick and tired of having to repeat that over and over again,” Nicholson said. “Every time we have conversations where we’re trying to express the problems, the first thing that the town tells us is that we’re not taxpayers.”
“I’ve been here for five years…and we’ve given up solution after solution for five years, and I haven’t seen much change,” Webster said. “As the [BSU] advisor, I’m just at the point where, how many more years will it take for change to happen?”
Foster encouraged students to keep coming up with ideas and solutions to issues that continue to be raised regarding the relationship between Chestertown and WC.
“What can you do in the next year and a half to help identify an issue and to work to see if we can address it?” Foster said. “When you identify a problem, I think we would all benefit if you could help us find ways to solve it.”
“What we need to do as students, is to go to school, not feel prejudiced all the time, not always feel like we are having to fight…Bringing it up to people who are in charge should be enough,” one student said.