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Town Meeting punts on Black and Brown Commission

Brookline Town Hall. Photo by Clare Ong
June 1, 2023  Updated July 7, 2023 at 7:37 p.m.

Brookline Town Meeting voted on Tuesday to refer a proposal to create a Black and Brown Commission to the town’s Select Board for more study, setting aside what had become a fraught issue among members of the town’s legislative body.

Town Meeting members who spoke in opposition of the proposal acknowledged that Brookline has significant work to do to fight structural racism in town, but raised concerns over whether the commission was the right form to do so. The final vote in favor of referring the proposal to the Select Board was 165 yes, 61 no and 12 abstentions.

The debate over the proposal, Warrant Article 19, was also clouded at the eleventh hour by allegations that a nonprofit whose leaders had been involved with crafting the commission proposal, the Black N Brown Club, was connected to a newsletter containing a repeated racial slur and personal attacks on prominent people of color in Brookline.

The Black N Brown Club denies that any of its members were involved with writing the newsletter, although it’s listed as a sponsor of the separate organization which did, Black N Brown News.

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The authors of the newsletter have remained anonymous.

“I did not write or have anything to do with the BNBN newsletter,” said Sana Hafeez, one of the leaders of the Black N Brown Club, at a town Advisory Committee meeting earlier this week.

She said that BNBN used BNBC’s account on Canva, graphic design software, to create the newsletter.

“While I may not agree with some of the language used in the newsletter, I do not have the right to limit others’ First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press,” Hafeez said.

The harm caused by the newsletter was nevertheless cited by some town officials and Town Meeting members who voted to refer the Warrant Article rather than approving it.

“An important lesson to be learned after certain things have happened, such as the newsletter that has caused such consternation … is that what goes around comes around,” said Bernard Greene, chair of the Select Board.

The group, formed in 2022, has also clashed with the Select Board and other town officials the last few months over requested federal funding for several of its proposals through the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), including an aviation training program and affordable childcare initiative.

Next steps

While referring an article is widely considered to be a tacit form of rejection, several Town Meeting members urged the Select Board to take its charge seriously.

“I feel deeply that our town has failed on structural racism and addressing it,” said Natalia Linos, who is also a School Committee member. “I hope that we will refer this not with the hopes of squashing it, but of actually doing more because our town needs to do better.

There’s no set timeline or process for how the Select Board will move forward with the proposal for a commission now; the referral motion only suggests “additional consideration.”

The Select Board has voted against formation of the commission twice, including on Wednesday just before Town Meeting convened

“We all need to find additional ways in which the issues raised by Warrant Article 19 and the discussion around it can be addressed in our town,” said Greene.

Deborah Brown, a Black woman who is president of the Brookline Community Development Corporation, was one of the people targeted in the newsletter. Brown said her reasons for supporting referral were broader.

“I’m not here speaking because of the mishegoss in the Black and Brown Club newsletter,” Brown said. “I’m tougher than that. I want only the best for my people and people in need.”

She said that Brookline has a “failure to implement” and that more laws won’t help solve the town’s problems. She also said the process of creating the commission proposal lacked wide community engagement, and that it could expose community conversations to open records laws.

“Referral should not be seen as a defeat, but as an opportunity to improve the document, and ultimately the conditions of black and brown people in Brookline,” Brown said.

Brookline has publicly struggled with issues of race for years, including incidents with racial slurs and graffiti at Brookline High School and an $11 million settlement paid to Gerald Alston, a Black Brookline firefighter, over racial discrimination.

Arguments for the commission

Before the vote, several leaders of the Black N Brown Club spoke in favor of the commission proposal, saying it would help lead to better representation in Brookline.

The aims of the commission are to develop programs and policies promoting equity specifically for Black, Latinx and indigenous people. It would consist of 13 members appointed by the Select Board.

“This commission’s focus is to change the way this town deals with Black and brown community issues,” said Hafeez, arguing that the proposal was created “by the people, for the people.”

“If we had a commission … we would have a centralized platform for our voices. We wouldn’t have to keep repeating ourselves to every committee. We would hold our elected officials accountable for bad governance and discrimination,” she said.

“Black and Brown people have not had representation in town government that represents their interests as a people,” said Adeniyi Ijanusi, another of the Black N Brown Club’s leaders.

They also decried town officials’ focus on the newsletter as a distraction.

“Of these cheap attacks and baseless assumptions, enough trying to connect that newsletter to this warrant article,” said Hafeez.