A new City of Middletown anti-racism was created on Monday, Oct. 5 at the city’s Common Council meeting. The task force will serve as an advisory committee for Middletown Mayor Ben Florsheim ’14 in an effort to identify and address systemic racism in the Middletown community.
The task force is set to become a permanent fixture of City Hall and has been allotted $200,000.
“We decided that creating a permanent task force to advise the mayor and to advise the council, whoever that will be in the future was an important thing,” Florsheim said. “Because I think Middletown’s done a lot of reckoning over the past few years with our legacy and the way that we fit that into life today.”
Newly appointed members were selected to serve either 2, 3, or 4 year terms on the committee. Stacey Barka, Sacha Armstrong-Crockett, Nashari Davis, Kirk Hart, and Valerie Light were appointed to serve for four year terms on the task force. Councilwoman Jeanette Blackwell, Councilman Darnell Ford, Councilman Edward Ford Jr., Patricia Austin, and Precious Price were appointed to serve three year terms. Viviana Conner, Brian Gartner, Keisha Kayon-Morgan, Liza Pena and Samantha Rival were appointed along with Majority Leader Gene Nocera and Minority Leader Phillip Pessina for two year terms.
Following the killing of George Floyd on May 25, many cities across the country, including Middletown, have seen a series of Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations unfold, culminating in a collective reckoning over racial injustice. Prior to the founding of the anti-racism task force, the City of Middletown partnered with the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) to author a study on race within the city, specifically in the aftermath of the white supremacist, neo-Nazi Unite the Right Rally that took place in Charlottesville in 2017.
Ford Jr. believes that the emergence of this task force will allow Middletown to become a trailblazer in antiracist action.
“We’re in the midst of a pandemic,” Ford Jr. said. “We’re in the midst of racial upheaval. This is the time that Middletown wants to start and be a leader going forward into the future, [as] a progressive leader for racial equality.”
Traditionally, the Middletown’s Human Relations Commission was responsible for ensuring citizen’s had equal access to city government services; however, according to Ford Jr, this has not always been the case.
“When we talk about city hall and trying to provide more access to people of color, to even get into city hall, it’s been like hitting a brick wall for a lot of African Americans, and a lot of people of color that have tried to get into city hall and work their way through the ranks,” Ford Jr. said.
For Ford Jr., the academic achievement gap present in Middletown schools was a motivating factor in his decision to apply for the task force. He pointed out that students of color often do receive the same academic support or opportunities as their white peers, which can significantly impact their ability to succeed in academic environments.
“I hope this committee continues to focus on early childhood education,” Ford Jr. said. “I’m going to bring that up and try to drive there as a solution that we build upon more coming in the future. We can really accomplish some real long lasting change if we really put our minds to it.”
Additionally, Ford Jr. emphasized the crucial need for community input in the task force’s work.
“I just want to encourage the community…please, please don’t be disengaged from this,” Ford Jr. said. “Please stay engaged for the future of our city and really think of what Middletown can be, not just what Middletown was or what Middletown is, but the vision of what Middletown can be rest within our hands today.”
Blackwell spoke to the importance of collaboration between council members and with Middletown residents. Anti-racism work in Middletown is personal to Blackwell, who is the first woman of color to sit on the common council.
“I look forward to collaborating, not just with the individuals in this city who are entrenched in this work, but the other folks that are residents in this city who perhaps are not as familiar and entrenched in this work, because we need everyone to be engaged in this work if we’re going to move the needle for all of the residents in the city,” Blackwell said. “I’m excited, I am looking forward to lifting up the voices of the minority groups in this community. I will say to my colleagues, let’s get to work, but I don’t really consider this work to be work literally, it’s something that I’m also very passionate about.”
The task force’s had their first meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13. Ford hopes to have action items on the agenda as soon as possible.
“I anticipate very good work [and] action items, no later than January 2021 if not sooner,” Ford said. “I anticipate that we will have, or at least this is what I’m going to push for, workshops involving the community no later than February 2021. I’m pretty aggressive in that stance, but again, this is work that should’ve been done yesterday.”
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