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!)
- New York Times 11/16/2021: ‘Woke’ Went the Way of ‘P.C.’ and ‘Liberal’ by John McWhorter
- Wall Street Journal 11/17/2021: ‘Woke’ Is a Bad Word for a Real Threat to American Democracy by Garry Kasparov