Salem launches race equity task force

Written By: Dustin Luca Staff Writer

SALEM — City leaders are assembling a task force looking at race equity “in all aspects of city life,” a move coming as the city, region, nation and world respond to an ever-expanding spotlight on racial inequality.

The Race Equity Task Force, tasked with reviewing “city policies, services and ordinances as well as inequities in community systems,” will include members of the City Council, School Committee, city organization leaders and those who led recent marches and events in Salem protesting police brutality and racial injustice.

“We have an opportunity and an obligation to listen, learn, reflect, and understand as we address the legacy of systemic racism in our society and to be a more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming city,” said city Mayor Kim Driscoll. “Forming this task force, which includes a dynamic group of leaders and community members of color, is the first step in that effort.”

The move, in part, follows the recent death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. His death, seen widely through video filmed by witnesses, later sparked protests around the world, as well as rioting in major cities, curfews implemented in response and more. Calls for justice have intensified for both Floyd and other victims of alleged police brutality in the weeks since.

The move also comes after Driscoll was asked to take — and subsequently accepted — a pledge from the Obama Foundation. The pledge, agreed to on Twitter, calls for a review of policies regarding police use of force, engaging her city “by including a diverse range of input, experiences + stories in review,” and report the findings of the review and seek feedback within 90 days. Driscoll took the pledge on June 3 in a tweet that can be viewed at bit.ly/3fMeq1S.

The task force was also announced after weeks of marches, demonstrations, sign-holding and more playing out around the city, with major events drawing anywhere from 100 to more than 500 each of the last three Fridays. Those have in part focused attention on the police department, where Salem police Capt. Kate Stephens was placed on paid administrative leave after making a post on department’s Twitter page that criticized Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh over the handling of COVID-related closures and protests.

The specific membership of the task force will be outlined later in the week. It will be led by Shawn Newton, a Salem resident and associate dean of students at Suffolk University in Boston. Part of Newton’s role at Suffolk includes overseeing the university’s Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion; he also co-founded Urban Echo, a non-profit that focuses on social justice.

“I’m looking forward to working with other community members to address this important issue,” said Newton. “I think this is a step in the right direction in order for us to hold each other accountable for the type of community we would like to live, work, and go to school in.”