The Bell in the Town Hall

There is a 151-year-old bell in the tower of the Cambridge Town Hall that few knew about until this year. It had been hidden and silent for decades. This is the story of bringing that bell back to life and ringing it on Veterans Day.

This story begins with the 3rd grade at Cambridge Elementary School:

Each year, CES 3rd graders spend several months learning about the history of our town. … This year [spring 2022], students studied the history of the village of Jeffersonville.


Retired schoolteacher Audrey Cota helps with the 3rd grade local history unit each year. One of the things the students learned from Ms. Cota this year was about the bell hidden in the tower of the Cambridge Town Hall. (The Cambridge Town Hall is in Jeffersonville, a village in the town of Cambridge.)

The 3rd graders wrote a letter to the Cambridge Selectboard asking that the bell be brought back to life!

Dear Selectboard Members,
Imagine seeing a bell that hasn’t been seen in over 40 years! Picture how it would bring a smile to everyone’s face to see and hear such an important part of our town’s history. … We were so amazed to learn that a 900 pound bell was hidden in the top of the building! Most people don’t know that the bell even exists. … Please help us bring the bell back, you are the only people who can help our community do this!

Read the complete letter by the students. The Selectboard discussed this letter in our meeting on June 21, 2022 (minutes).

Indeed, the bell had been largely forgotten. No one currently serving on the Cambridge Selectboard, including me, knew that the bell existed. Coincidentally, we were already talking about engaging an architect to look at various aspects of the town hall including structural integrity, internal layout, HVAC systems, and the elevator. We agreed to make the bell part of that review, too.

Brief history: The Cambridge Town Hall, originally a church and later a theater, became unused in the 1970s and fell into disrepair. A group of concerned citizens, the Town Hall Committee, rescued the building through volunteer efforts, donations and grants. The building and the bell were both restored in the early 1980s. Only $1 of taxpayer money was involved in the initial restoration, when the town acquired the building in 1980. The bell was featured in the Fourth of July parade in 1982 before being put back into the tower, out of sight and eventually out of mind. The last time anyone remembers ringing the bell was in 1996 when the U.S. Post Office signed a lease for the first floor.

On September 29, 2022, Architect Keith Gross and Town Administrator Jonathan DeLaBruere rang the bell to show that it could be done. Watch the video and listen to the bell:

It makes a lovely sound!

There was no plan to ring the bell further until the Selectboard received a request sent to many local towns, churches, and synagogues to ring their bells (if they have one) at 11:00 AM on Veterans Day for world peace. We agreed to that request in our Selectboard meeting on November 1 (minutes).

Selectboard Member Courtney Leitz (a 6th grade teacher at CES) coordinated with the now 4th grade students. The students and their teacher from last year, Molly Spillane, came to the town office on the morning of Veterans Day. The students read a statement about the meaning of Veterans Day, originally Armistice Day, and the significance of ringing the bell:

On this Veterans Day, we come to ring the bell in honor of our service men and women and our veterans and to promote peace. We understand that they have made great sacrifices for the common good. We honor their patriotism and are grateful for all they have done. We ring this bell today with the hopes that there may be peace throughout the world, ensuring the safety of our service members, our people, and our world.

Read the complete statement by the students.

The photo below shows the students lining up in the hallway to pull the rope to ring the bell. The rope is hanging down through the ceiling where the ladder is positioned:

Each student and Ms. Spillane rang the bell beginning at 11:00 AM. The students were excited when they pulled the rope and heard the bell ring!

Many people gathered outside in the parking lot to hear the town bell. At the same time, the Second Congregational Church across the street also rang its bell. Watch the video and listen to the bells:

It was a magical moment!

Thanks to Architect Keith Gross for both videos in this post.

The bell itself remains hidden from public view. Jeremy LaClair, the CES Technology Coordinator, climbed the several ladders to reach the bell in the tower of the town hall and took the following photo just prior to it being rung by the students:

The inscription on the bell reads:

Troy Bell Foundry
Jones & Company
Troy, N.Y.

The CES 3rd grade learned about more local history than just the bell in the town hall.

They showcased their knowledge through a musical performance, by creating a TV newscast, and by virtually recreating Jeffersonville in Minecraft (the popular computer game).

That quote, and their work, is here:

Among other things, they learned how the village changed its name from Cambridge Center to Jeffersonville after Thomas Jefferson died. That story, as well as the story of the bell in the town hall, is in the 3rd of three newscasts at the link above.

Audrey Cota wrote the lyrics for the song “This Town Is Your Town,” the musical performance at the link above.

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Why I Am Supporting Rebecca Pitre

See my earlier post Supporting Rebecca Pitre.

This post is to further explain to my friends and fellow citizens why I am supporting her.

I spent yesterday morning at the Cambridge transfer station with Rebecca and her campaign for Vermont State Representative. It was her first time back at the transfer station since the incident on August 27th. Many people stopped by her table to say that they support her candidacy, and that they are glad she has returned to campaign at the transfer station.

I met a man from Fletcher who moved to Vermont in 2019. Being from Fletcher, he can’t vote for Rebecca, but he has been watching this election. We visited a long time. He seemed intelligent and reasonable, with considerable life experience about people. His observation was that some people are suffering from “Pitre Derangement Syndrome.” Oh my, I had to laugh!

That phrase brings to mind Donald Trump, of course, because of this reference. And, sure enough, I recall that there was a recent letter to the editor in the News & Citizen that likened Rebecca Pitre to Donald Trump. If people are voting against Rebecca because they think she is like Donald Trump, they are deeply misinformed. I have gotten to know Rebecca over the last five months, and I can assure you that she is nothing like Donald Trump.

As I wrote in Supporting Rebecca Pitre:

I find that Rebecca brings common sense, compassion, wisdom, and perspective born of life experience to whatever she does. She is a good listener and a good thinker. She will be a valuable and effective representative in Montpelier for the people of Waterville and Cambridge.

I will add that I find Rebecca to be curious, courageous, and caring. She cares deeply about issues that affect local residents. For example, see her recent posts in Front Porch Forum about the opioid crisis (10/26) and energy issues (10/28). See Rebecca Pitre’s website where she has been posting about local issues since she announced her candidacy in May, most recently about the housing crisis.

To my fellow citizens in Cambridge and Waterville:

Go ahead and vote for the Democratic candidate if you wish. That is your right, and Lucy Boyden is a good person. For myself, I believe that the Democratic Party in Vermont has too much power, and that they use that power to pursue bad policies. Just one example is the Global Warming Solutions Act which the legislature enacted over the governor’s veto, as I wrote about in Front Porch Forum on 10/20.

I am voting for the Republican/Libertarian candidate, Rebecca Pitre.

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Not seeking re-election

I have been elected to two 3-year-terms on the Cambridge selectboard. My second term ends at town meeting in March 2023. I am not seeking re-election.

When I retired from a career in business at the end of 2016, I had no intention of being involved in town government. But I was asked in February 2017 if I would be interested in running for an open seat on the selectboard, and I decided to give it a go. I was elected at town meeting in March 2017 and re-elected in March 2020 at the last town meeting before the pandemic lockdown.

Local government is more important than I had realized. There is much that goes on in local government that I didn’t know about before. Being on the selectboard has been a great adventure! Some of my journey into local government is recorded on this blog. For example, after I had been a selectboard member for about 16 months, I started a series of posts on Learning about town government.

Following are reflections on my two terms on the selectboard.

Continue reading
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Supporting Rebecca Pitre

Rebecca Pitre (in blue jacket), candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives, with supporters

Rebecca Pitre is campaigning to represent my town of Cambridge in the Vermont House of Representatives. I support her candidacy.

Rebecca lives in the adjacent town of Waterville. She is running in the Lamoille-3 House District which consists of Cambridge and Waterville.

Rebecca’s campaign website explains her main issues: strengthen families, support rural communities, and combat despair. Her approach is grassroots, community based. This resonates with me. Too often our political leaders think the answer to every problem is more laws, more regulations, and more programs administered by Montpelier and Washington when often it is top-down government itself that is a major part of the problem.

Rebecca and her husband Tom Pitre moved to Vermont from Maryland. They first visited Vermont in 2005 after one of their children moved here. The next year they bought property in Belvidere, and in 2012 they purchased their current property in Waterville. Now two of their three children live in Vermont, and Rebecca and Tom have been living full-time in Waterville since 2018. Tom and Rebecca operated a construction business in Maryland, and they continue to find all the work they want in Vermont.

I took the photo at the top of this post outside the primary election polls in Jeffersonville on August 9th. (Jeffersonville is a village in the town of Cambridge.) Rebecca Pitre is on the right, in the blue jacket.

Dannie McFarland (on the left) and her young family moved to Cambridge from Virginia in 2019. Dannie works at Smugglers Notch Resort. Her husband (not in the photo) is in the Army National Guard.

Irving Payne grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York City and upstate New York before moving to Vermont in 1996. He has lived in this area since 2003. Irving and Lauri Paradis (next to him in the photo) bought their current home in Jeffersonville in 2018. Lauri, originally from St. Albans, works for a contractor for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Irving has worked for the Cambridge Community Center since it opened in 2016. He also does freelance video work and operates Modaja Communications.

Like me, Dannie and Irving and Lauri support Rebecca’s candidacy.

Like Rebecca, Dannie and Irving moved to Vermont from somewhere else. I am glad that they all chose to live here.

People who moved here from somewhere else sometimes tell me that they acutely feel their “outsider” status. As a member of a family that has been in Cambridge for generations, this bothers me. We should judge people as individuals on their merits, not by how long they have lived here. (And, in the first place, we should judge people as little as possible.)

Especially since becoming a selectboard member in 2017, I have tried to meet more people who moved here from somewhere else. It has been a pleasure to get to know Irving and Lauri, Dannie, and Rebecca and Tom.

I find that Rebecca brings common sense, compassion, wisdom, and perspective born of life experience to whatever she does. She is a good listener and a good thinker. She will be a valuable and effective representative in Montpelier for the people of Waterville and Cambridge.

Please join me in getting to know Rebecca Pitre and supporting her campaign: Rebecca for the House.

Update: More discussion in Why I Am Supporting Rebecca Pitre posted 10/30.

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Alternative for VLCT

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

DEI is a focus area for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) where I serve on the board of directors. The VLCT created an Equity Committee in November 2020. This committee recently adopted a charter which states that a core value of the committee is that: “Diversity, equity and inclusion should be embedded in all aspects of local government.” The charter instructs committee members to: “Use a DEI lens when making all decisions related to the work of the Equity Committee.”

The “DEI lens” is not the only way to look at the world. In fact, it may not be a particularly good way to look at the world. See Problems with DEI and Alternative to DEI. Yet the VLCT is advocating that DEI “should be embedded in all aspects of local government.” I think this is a mistake. In this post, I propose a different approach for the VLCT.

The VLCT should be a resource to municipalities who are dealing with DEI issues, but the VLCT should not promote DEI to the exclusion of other views. The VLCT should help its member municipalities understand and use Vermont’s superpower.

“Vermont’s superpower” is “the ability to practice local democracy” even in turbulent times. Vermont has nearly 250 years of experience in practicing local democracy through such turmoil as the Second Great Awakening, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. The DEI movement raises important issues that warrant broad discussion. The issues are emotional, and discussions can be heated. With the VLCT’s help, Vermont municipalities can work through these discussions and make needed changes.

Part of Vermont’s “ability to practice local democracy” comes from the tradition of town meeting. The VLCT is the expert resource for how to conduct town meeting. An important official at town meeting is the town moderator. The VLCT conducts annual training sessions for town moderators. The magic of local democracy is in that room, which includes VLCT staff, representatives from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, and veteran town moderators from across Vermont. There is also humor in that room, as newbie town moderators begin to understand what they got themselves into.

Town meetings can be emotional and heated. They can also be healing. We can especially appreciate the role of town meeting this year because in March 2021 most towns in Vermont gave up their traditional town meeting due to the pandemic. Susan Clark, the town moderator in Middlesex, wrote about what that meant for local democracy in the commentary that I linked above: Vermont’s superpower, revealed: The ability to practice local democracy.

One of the dangers of democracy is the “tyranny of the majority.” Town meeting is intentional about making room for minority views – something the DEI movement seeks. Meg Mott, the town moderator in Putney, explains how that works in this news article: Keep seeking dissent.

The key to making progress on contentious issues is discussion. Towns and cities that have moved away from traditional town meeting to deciding issues only at the ballot box may have forgotten the importance of discussion. The role of the VLCT should be to remind municipalities of the importance of discussion, and to provide resources to municipalities about how to conduct productive discussions. Voting should be the last thing to do, only after much discussion aimed at finding common ground.

Some municipalities may form committees to study DEI issues and make recommendations for change. The VLCT is the expert resource on how to form committees and hold effective and legal meetings.

In some communities, citizen workgroups may self-organize and “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (The quote is from the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.) There is a bright line between being part of government, such as a municipal committee, and not being part of government, such as a self-organized citizen workgroup. For example, municipal committees must follow Vermont’s Open Meeting Law while self-organized citizen workgroups need not. Again, the VLCT is the expert resource for municipalities about how this distinction works.

The VLCT is already the recognized expert resource on all the topics mentioned above. Is there a role for outside consultants? Yes. Consultants can help us understand the constantly changing language of DEI. As I noted in the second post in this series (What is DEI?), a decade ago the movement was about “diversity and inclusion.” Now it’s about “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Why this change in language? What is the intent of those words? Consultants can help answer those questions.

To sum up this post: I believe that the VLCT should not promote DEI to the exclusion of other views. A better alternative for the VLCT is to be an expert resource for municipalities on how to conduct productive discussions of contentious issues and how to form effective committees, bringing in outside consultants to help with the language of DEI as needed.

Optional extra reading:

Three recent items that have come to my attention about the constantly changing language of DEI:

  • New York Times 9/21/2021: Woke Words With John McWhorter, a Times Virtual Event (John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics, discusses four words: master, slave, powwow, and Negro. This stimulating “evening of conversation and song” also features Jane Coaston and an opera!)
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Alternative to DEI

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

The previous post discussed Problems with DEI. Is there a better way? Yes! I believe we can find a better way for our country by recalling our founding principles.

The Declaration of Independence states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

This noble vision has been with us since 1776. We know that our country was imperfect at its founding because slavery existed in the southern states. Our country is still far from perfect, as evidenced by our current state of unrest. Nothing human will ever be perfect, but we can and should strive for continuous improvement. Indeed, there has been significant progress toward reaching the goal of equality.

It is useful to think of the development of our country in terms of “three foundings”:

  • The first founding was the American Revolution. This founding is encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Constitution of 1787-88.
  • The second founding was the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. The spirit of this founding is captured in the Gettysburg Address.
  • The third founding was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech “I Have a Dream” is the essence of this founding.

(For more discussion of the concept of these “three foundings” see Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, a project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)

Hamilton: An American Musical (2015) tells the story of the first founding of our country through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers:

The widely acclaimed musical that draws from the breadth of America’s culture and shows its audience what we share doesn’t just dramatize Hamilton’s revolution: It continues it.

“What we share” are the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the practical government created by the Constitution, the first of its kind in human history.

“The widely acclaimed musical” continues the spirit of “Hamilton’s revolution” because it demonstrates through its mostly non-white cast that:

American history can be told and retold, claimed and reclaimed, even by people who don’t look like George Washington and Betsy Ross.

The two quotes above are from the book Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, published in 2016 to tell the story of making the musical.

Each of the three foundings described above represents a move to a better society. How can we continue to move forward? How can we make further progress on realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream?

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

(Martin Luther King, Jr. had two daughters and two sons, so he is implicitly acknowledging that the original ideal of “all men are created equal” has been expanded to include both sexes. At the time of the “I Have a Dream” speech, the 19th Amendment had been in effect for more than 40 years. That was another step in the progress of our country.)

One step we could take to make further progress would be to remove all preferences based on group identity from the domains of government contracting, public education, and employment. The State of California did exactly that, with respect to state government, with Proposition 209 of 1996 and Proposition 16 of 2020. See the link for further information and discussion. The country would do well to follow California’s example in this regard.

There are many organizations that can help our country make further progress toward the goal of equality. One organization that I recommend for consideration is the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR): “a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing civil rights and liberties for all Americans, and promoting a common culture based on fairness, understanding and humanity.” In the previous post, I mentioned John McWhorter and Zaid Jilani. Both are on FAIR’s Board of Advisors.

To sum up this post: I believe that a better alternative to DEI is to continue striving to reach the ideals expressed in our founding principles. A good summary of those principles is the traditional motto of the United States – E pluribus unum – Latin for “Out of many, one.”

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Problems with DEI

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

One problem with DEI is that it categorizes people into groups. This is evident from the definition of diversity with its emphasis on race, ethnicity, gender, etc. (See What is DEI?) I believe that government should treat people as individuals as much as possible. In slavery, government categorized people into groups with one group being enslaved by another group. In the Jim Crow era, government categorized people into groups and enforced racial segregation. DEI repeats this fundamental error of emphasizing group identity.

The purpose of group identity in DEI is to categorize people as oppressed or oppressor. This is evident from the references to “systemic oppression” in the definition of equity and “power differences” in the definition of inclusion. (See What is DEI?)

Categorizing people as oppressed or oppressor is problematic because we all have in us a bit of the oppressor and a bit of the oppressed. Neither is desirable. Each of us should strive to minimize both aspects in our individual personas, as well as in society.

Categorizing people as oppressed or oppressor is especially problematic when it is based on immutable characteristics such as race and not on individual behavior. There is not enough room in the concept of DEI for personal agency.

Another problem with DEI is that it is about equality of outcomes. This is evident from the graphic about equality vs. equity from the National League of Cities. (See What is DEI?) “Equity” as used in the DEI movement means equality of outcomes.

“Antiracism” is a term that refers to similar themes as DEI. Ibram X. Kendi, author of the 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, proposes an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to enforce equality of outcomes (source).

I don’t believe in equality of outcomes. I believe in equality of opportunity and equality before the law, neither of which will result in equality of outcomes. Some people will be more successful than others. Some people will stay out of jail while others will not. Personal agency is important in life, and it is largely lacking from DEI.

Another problem with DEI is that it has effectively become a religion. I don’t mean this in the sense of a religious denomination, or that it is concerned with the afterlife, or that it proposes a deity or deities to worship (although the letters DEI remind one of the Latin root of deity). I mean this in the sense of a broad social movement that feels like a religious movement. A close analogy is the Second Great Awakening in U.S. history from roughly 1790 to 1840. Others have also made this point, as I discussed in an earlier post: Great Awakenings.

“Woke” is a term that refers to similar themes as DEI and antiracism. John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, says that the DEI movement is not like a religion, it is a religion. Dr. McWhorter is a New York Times columnist. He is black. Last month he published Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Zaid Jilani reviewed this book in the New York Times on 10/26/2021: John McWhorter Argues That Antiracism Has Become a Religion of the Left.

An aspect of DEI that is especially problematic is that it leads to orthodoxy that does not tolerate dissent. DEI claims that it “fosters a diversity of thought, ideas, perspectives, and values” (see What is DEI?), but this is often not true. DEI leads to call-out culture and cancel culture. (The links are about two diverse black women.) As in a religion, heterodox thinkers and heretics are excommunicated. People lose their jobs. This aspect of DEI is particularly troubling if we allow DEI dogma to infuse government.

Finally, I question if DEI works. DEI may, in fact, be counterproductive to the goal of living together more cooperatively. Instead of bringing us together, DEI may be driving us apart.

See this podcast by Jane Coaston at the New York Times on 8/11/2021: Are Workplace Diversity Programs Doing More Harm Than Good?

Employers everywhere are deploying D.E.I. programs to be less racist. But do they even work?

There is a transcript at the link.

This podcast is noteworthy for asking those questions. It is noteworthy because of who Jane Coaston is. I am an old, white, straight man who lives in rural America far from the centers of power. She is in many ways my opposite: a young, black, queer person who lives in urban America near the centers of power. She lives in Washington, D.C., and hosts a major podcast (The Argument) for the New York Times.

Jane Coaston and I do have a few things in common according to this article in the Washington Post on 4/12/2021: D.C.’s rising libertarian star, with her ‘healthy skepticism of state power,’ secures an influential podcast. We are both happily married. We both tend libertarian. We are both inclined to think about people, including ourselves, primarily as individuals rather than according to their group identities. And we both question if DEI works. In her podcast, Ms. Coaston concludes: maybe, maybe not. I conclude: not.

There are profound problems with DEI. Is there a better way? Yes! See the next post: Alternative to DEI.

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What is DEI?

This post is part of a series of posts on Questioning DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). Please see the link for an introduction, a disclaimer, and a list of the initial posts in this series.

What is DEI? The Equity Committee of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) uses the following definitions (source):

Diversity: The full range of human and/or organizational differences and similarities, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, (dis)ability, physical and mental attributes, religion, values systems, national origin, political beliefs, parental/family status, and cultures.

Equity: Equity is ensuring fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of communities most affected by systemic oppression.

Inclusion: Inclusive environments are places in which any individual or group is and feels welcomed, respected, supported, valued, and able to fully participate as their authentic selves. An inclusive and welcoming culture embraces differences, offers respect in words and actions for all people, fosters a diversity of thought, ideas, perspectives, and values, strives to create balance in the face of power differences.

I had experience with “diversity and inclusion” when I was working. Most of my career was with the Farm Credit System. The Farm Credit Administration (FCA) is the federal agency that regulates the Farm Credit System. FCA published a rule in 2012 that required all Farm Credit System institutions to incorporate diversity and inclusion into their annual operational and strategic business plans. The definitions in that rule (77 FR 25577) are not inconsistent with the above definitions.

The concept of “equity” as it is used in the DEI movement was new to me. The following graphic from the National League of Cities explains their definition of “equity” by contrasting it with their definition of “equality” (source: REAL 100 Webinar slide 28):

The text says:

Equality = Sameness. Equality provides the same thing for everyone. This only works when people start from the same place, history and set of circumstances.

Equity = Justice. Equity is about fairness, and providing people with the resources and opportunities they need, given their history and set of circumstances.

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Questioning DEI

The current movement for “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) is big. In my world, it is a focus area for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) where I serve on the board of directors. This post begins a series of posts of my thoughts about DEI. Posts in this series have the DEI tag. As always, my posts on this blog are my own views. They are not the views of the VLCT or any other entity or person.

The VLCT created an Equity Committee in November 2020. This committee recently adopted a charter which states that a core value of the committee is that:

Diversity, equity and inclusion should be embedded in all aspects of local government.

The charter instructs committee members to:

Use a DEI lens when making all decisions related to the work of the Equity Committee.

Information about the VLCT’s Equity Committee and DEI initiatives can be found on the VLCT’s website: Equity Resources.

I discuss my reservations about the statements quoted above and other aspects of the DEI movement in the next four posts:

Throughout this series of posts, I link to news items and opinion pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Subscriptions are probably required to access those links, and I apologize for that. There are also many links that do not require a subscription.

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What Killed Michael Brown?

Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, on August 9, 2014. He was shot by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Michael Brown was black. Darren Wilson is white. The shooting led to widespread protests, some of which turned into riots. The incident prompted two federal investigations by the Obama administration and contributed to national discussions about policing. (Wikipedia article)

The killing of Michael Brown led to the protest slogan “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Wilson said that he shot Brown in self-defense. Some witnesses said that Brown had his hands up and said “Don’t shoot” before Wilson shot him. Other witnesses contradicted this account and said that Brown charged Wilson. A grand jury declined to indict Wilson. The federal investigation concluded that Wilson’s claim of self-defense was supported by considerable credible evidence and refuted by no credible evidence. (source: the Wikipedia article linked above and the U.S. Department of Justice report)

The documentary film “What Killed Michael Brown?” analyzes this shooting, including what led up to it and the aftermath. The film’s tag line is “When Truth Becomes A Lie & When A Lie Becomes Truth,” referring to the false narrative of “Hands up, don’t shoot.”

What Killed Michael Brown?” was produced and directed by filmmaker Eli Steele, and written and narrated by his father Shelby Steele. They are both black. Dr. Shelby Steele is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The film was released in October 2020 – in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, a little over four months after the death of George Floyd, and a month before the 2020 presidential election.

What killed Michael Brown? Was it racism? Shelby Steele spends the first half of the documentary making the case that it was NOT racism. In the remainder of the film, he makes the case that it was liberalism. The last 12 minutes or so bring it all together. Quote from 1:38:15:

The liberalism that came out of the 60s has proven to be a more insidious oppression than either slavery or Jim Crow segregation. Those oppressions confined your person. Liberalism wants your very soul. It wants you to be a grateful and mindless captive, but a captive nonetheless.

“The liberalism that came out of the 60s” refers to President Johnson’s Great Society and similar government programs, including the “war on poverty,” public housing programs, and affirmative action. Others might use a different word or phrase than liberalism, perhaps social justice movement. Whatever the label, the idea that Shelby Steele conveys is that government programs that were intended to help black people, in fact, had the opposite effect. Instead of raising up black people, they diminished black people – to the point where Michael Brown felt little self-worth.

In other words, Shelby Steele says: yes, it is “the system” that killed Michael Brown. But it is not the historical system of racism that existed in this country. It does not go back to 1776 or 1619. It manifests in government programs that began in the tumultuous 1960s. It is a modern system built in my lifetime primarily by well-meaning white people.

After you have watched the documentary, I recommend watching two episodes of “The Glenn Show” about the film. Glenn Loury is a professor of economics at Brown University. A frequent guest on his show is John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. Both men are black, but not of the same generation. Dr. Loury is 72 while Dr. McWhorter is 55.

  • What Killed Michael Brown? | Glenn Loury & John McWhorter – in this episode, the two men discuss the documentary by Eli and Shelby Steele which had just come out. Several topics are covered during the show; the discussion about “What Killed Michael Brown?” is from 28:39 to 46:00.

“What Killed Michael Brown?” and “The Glenn Show” present views on race and racism that are not talked about much in today’s mainstream media. Recommended.

You can stream “What Killed Michael Brown?” on Amazon Video here and on Vimeo here. DVD and Blu-ray discs can be purchased on the film’s website here. The image above, showing 28-year-old Darren Wilson and 18-year-old Michael Brown, is from the DVD case. Used with permission.

See the trailer for “What Killed Michael Brown?

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