EASTHAMPTON – Facing allegations that she made racist remarks to a student in a high school civics class, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle appeared before City Council on Wednesday and admitted her remarks were “wrong” and promised to take action to “break down the barriers”.
“During the We the People practice session, I intended to share my perspective on the implicit biases that might be factored into the judges’ decision,” LaChapelle said, referring to an upcoming class competition. “Yes, I swore. Yes, I had a rough morning. Not excusable at all. But human.
“As soon as I learned of the effect my words had on the student and his family, I contacted directly before leaving on vacation. I met with the parents, the superintendent, the principal and the instructor of We the People, and I wrote letters to the family and to the class that was in attendance,” she continued.
In a public Facebook post that has since been deleted, the high school student‘s mother alleged that LaChapelle made ‘racist remarks’ to her daughter in front of the entire class late last month and ‘used the F-word’ before leave the class.
The message quoted the mayor as saying, “You are different…you don’t sound like a white man. And then the mayor later said, “No one cares…I had a rough morning,” according to the post.
At the request of Shawn Sheehan, a high school science teacher and president of the Easthampton Education Association, school board chair Cynthia Kwiecinski said April 12 that the board would begin an investigation into the swap. Kwiecinski could not be reached for comment Thursday.
LaChapelle said his comments were intended to bolster the students‘ argument in the class’s upcoming competition by acknowledging factors that are beyond their control — the bias often encountered by people of color — but which have been interpreted differently by the class. student and family.
“I assumed, wrongly, that they would understand my intention, but I was wrong. As a woman, I know the prejudices, but being the other is not my experience. My presumption would not have must have caused harm, but she did,” the mayor said. “I should not assume the public would understand my intent and I fully appreciate the mistake I made and will do my best to don’t do it again. I will inform the council and residents of our community of my personal and professional efforts to remove barriers, and I firmly believe that these barriers must fall for the health and success of our community.
Prior to LaChapelle’s statements at the council meeting, a few people supported the mayor and described her as an ally.
Grace Moreno, executive director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said that time and time again, blacks and browns are statistically treated differently.
“I come before you today because I don’t have a white voice. I don’t have a white voice when I go to get a loan from the bank. I don’t have a white voice when I get arrested by the police. I don’t have a white voice even though you can see that I don’t have an accent, not a Texan from where I emigrated. Not a Boston for where I lived in past 25 years,” Moreno said. “But when I walk in the world, my voice is not white because it comes out of my thick brown lips and round brown face. Why is my voice not Is she not white?Because ladies and gentlemen, we live, as has become more pronounced over the past five years, in a racist society where the playing field is not fair.
In December, the Boston-based LGBT chamber announced at a press conference in Easthampton alongside LaChapelle that it was expanding into western Massachusetts and was in the process of recruiting a new officer at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. The Black Economic Council of Massachusetts and the nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights also announced plans to open new offices in western Massachusetts next year.
“Our chamber alongside the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Lawyers for Civil Rights and others, was only welcomed to Western Massachusetts by Mayor Nicole LaChapelle,” she said. “What we need for this to happen are allies, white allies. People who know the inner game. Mayor LaChapelle is that person.
Dr. Lomax R. Campbell, who attended the meeting via Google Meet, said it was important for him to call from a conference he was attending in Rochester, New York, to share his perspective on LaChapelle and the work she was doing.
“I certainly don’t have a white voice and have worked with Mayor LaChapelle, his administration and multiple community partners on racial equity work, from major investment to racial equity training to begin to talk about how to deal with racial sensitivities in the community,” he said. “I consider Mayor LaChapelle an ally. (She) is really trying to authentically do real work to transform the community.
Campbell, who is the CEO and president of business management consulting firm Third Eye Network LLC, helped lead virtual workshops against racism and bias from the anti-racism collective, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, to about 50 city employees in two sessions last year. LaChapelle mandated department heads to participate in the workshops.
The 18-hour workshops offered in August and October 2021 were the first steps for leaders from all departments doing targeted work on equity and bias in local government, she said.
Over the course of three days next week, Campbell will lead debriefing sessions from the workshops that will address concepts such as organizational culture and change management frameworks, and philosophical aspects of cultural difference.
LaChapelle said that as long as she can find the funding for this, there will be another session in 2023 as she believes these facilitated conversations have value. Both workshops cost just over $25,000, she says.
“It is not a business then accomplished. … We will continue to have this conversation. It’s not sexy. It’s not fast and it might give people pause,” she said. “It’s not about being perfect or politically correct – some might walk out of a studio and totally disagree, but the idea of this work is most successful when it’s continuous and organic, and allows for a authentic voice where there is facilitated conversation. There is no magic solution to put in the water that erases racism or nullifies prejudice.
Emily Thurlow can be contacted at [email protected].