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Dear Reading Neighbors:
As you know, in our upcoming Town Meeting, there will be a vote to support hiring a Director of Equity and Social Justice. This position has been deemed a community priority by the Select Board and the Town Manager. I respectfully request that you urge your Town Meeting precinct members support funding it.
Some who are opposed to the position have argued that we cannot afford it. The proposed salary for the position is under $75K; even with benefits, the cost would be under $100K. To put that figure into context, it is the equivalent of less than $4 per resident and less than 1/10 of 1% of our proposed FY 2022 budget of $109.6M. The cost is not prohibitive.
Others opposed to this position have said that we do not need it. However, in recent years, Reading has been in local and national news for dozens of incidents of hate, including anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic graffiti and slurs; a Special Report authored by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled Hate at School included photos of Reading Memorial High School. In recent months, our Town Manager has issued an apology to educators, and our Superintendent of Schools has issued one to police officers over the deep rift that has emerged between them in large part over handling of equity and social justice issues. It is evident to me that Reading would benefit from additional staff with the expertise to help us navigate these complex issues.
Some opposed to the position have cast it as partisan in nature, citing statements of support for it by “liberal” groups and individuals. I disagree with the notion that addressing equity and social justice is inherently partisan. Consider Reading’s adoption of Senior Tax Relief, which addresses issues of equity, and our School Committee’s recent revision of its policy regarding discussing controversial issues in the classroom, which addresses issues of social justice. Both Senior Tax Relief and the School Committee’s revised policy have been developed to aid and protect people in vulnerable positions without regard to their political affiliation if any. The Director of Equity and Social Justice would be tasked with serving all members of the Reading community, “regardless of their social, cultural, or economic position.”
It also makes sense to me to house this staff member at the Reading Public Library, which also serves all of us, “regardless of [our] social, cultural, or economic position,” and regularly offers educational programming to all sectors of the community. The Director’s salary would be funded from the library, town, and school budgets; the Director would be accountable to the Board of Library Trustees; and the Director would collaborate with a volunteer advisory board, modeled on the highly regarded Reading Coalition for Education and Prevention (formerly RCASA), on which I served for several years. This structure – recommended by the Town Manager – seems likely to ensure that the Director will be accessible, responsible, visible, and accountable to all sectors of our community.
Furthermore, positions focused on equity and social justice are now commonplace; companies, institutions, and municipalities across the nation have developed them in the desire to gain deeper understanding of how to enact the Constitution’s mandate to offer “equal protection under the law” and respond positively to our nation’s evolving demographic makeup. A Director of Equity and Social Justice can help Reading proactively recognize, prepare for, and embrace the emerging changes in our community’s population and workforce. Funding this position represents an investment in our future.
Sherri VandenAkker, Summer Avenue