City Manager Tom Ambrosino agreed to sweeping changes immediately within City government to help stem systemic racism within City Hall during a meeting on the subject called for by Councillors Leo Robinson and Calvin Brown, amongst others.
The meeting on Tuesday night was a follow up put in during the last meeting in June by Robinson and Brown and other councillors following up on the Black Lives Matter rally organized by what has now become known as the Chelsea Young Adult Alliance and the Chelsea Black Community.
The meeting was bolstered by a letter sent from the Young Adult Alliance, led by Kyle and Jayda Umemba. That letter went to Ambrosino within the last week and contained upwards of 50 demands on how to change City government to prevent systemic racism.
The call by Councillors Robinson and Brown, and the young people, were answered in a sweeping set of initial changes laid out by Ambrosino at the meeting.
That started with an ask of Ambrosino to acknowledge publicly that systemic racism is built into government at all levels, even Chelsea City Hall.
He said he had no problem doing that.
“That’s an easy one for me because I do acknowledge that inherently all government entities, unfortunately, are infused with systemic racism,” he said. “It is inherent bias. I accept that and I have publicly acknowledged that…The City declared racism as a public health emergency. That is a recognition that there is systemic bias in institutions and they need to be addressed.”
Beyond that, the Councillors and the youth had unilaterally called for a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion – and Ambrosino committed to that and to providing a budget for the office this fiscal year.
“I am in full support of that and it will be a positive step forward to have that office here at City Hall,” he said.
He proposed that the new office directly report to him and the City Solicitor, though it had been called for as a department within Human Resources by the youth. He said he would likely be able to hire the director by November, and would ask the Council to approve $200,000 from Free Cash at the next meeting to start the work.
“I envision this office will initially be for Fiscal Year 21 one person,” he said. “We will have a director of Diversity and Inclusion. It’s not a low-wage job. It’s a highly skilled job with a highly-skilled person and will be like any other high-level department head.”
Over time, he said there could likely be more staff to help the director.
Some of the other calls in the letter and by the Council included inherent bias training for all City employees, and also an assessment of where City government is at right now in regards to diversity.
Councillor Damali Vidot said that would be a good starting point.
“I would like someone to come in and give us some perspective from outside on how these systems perpetuate in way we don’t see ourselves,” she said.
Ambrosino said that would likely be the first task of any director of the new office.
He said within the package he will send to the Council in September for consideration will be a budget that includes money for a director, for procuring an assessment of City Hall and City government, and for the beginnings of inherent bias trainings.
He said there would have to be a “robust” number going forward for the office to conduct trainings – as he doesn’t expect this to be an initiative that fizzles, but one that continues on and grows.
Councillor Robinson said that is exactly what he is looking for, something that perseveres. He and the Council called for a Task Force that would be “organic” and coming from the community rather than City Hall. He said the Task Force would be called on to make sure these initiatives stick around for the long run.
“That’s important to me that we put things in place now,” he said. “We need to have a Task Force to make sure it’s around and working for several years and not just put in place and goes away in a year.”
There was agreement that the Task Force on Racism be established, and that it would not be appointed by City Hall or anyone in the current power structure. The details of that will continue to be defined as time goes on.
Vidot said she hoped it would be made up of black, indigenous and people of color, and would act similarly to an Independent Civilian Review Board.
Ambrosino also said he would be looking to also address a call from the Young Adults implement racial equity in City Budgeting, and to promote better engagement in the community on the City Budget and expenditures.
The first is something that would be done internally, making sure all expenditures by department heads are seen through an equity lens. The second piece he said would be on him, and he committed to having budget teaching sessions in January to help the general public to first understand how municipal budgeting works – what can and cannot be done. It’s something he does already for new members of the City Council every two years.
He said if the Council approves his request in September, the new Office could be running by November.
“If the Council adopts this appropriation in September, we could probably have a director on board in early November,” he said.
The Young Adult demands are numerous, and Tuesday was just a start, but Kyle Umemba said it was a good start. He said it meant a great deal to hear the proposal for the director, and also a budget allocation with it. That, he said, means it has been taken seriously and is real.
Meanwhile, he said in the next two weeks he will be scheduling a Town Hall for residents to tell their stories and be heard.
“We will be setting up Town Hall meeting because we have heard there is a request to get community voices out there,” he said. “There will be an agenda and we will document these stories and narratives.”