Salem Race Equity Task Force Updates the Public

Written By: Guthrie Scrimgeour

SALEM — The city’s Race Equity Task Force held a public forum Monday night to share updates on the progress of its work since it was created in June 2020 in the wake of the social unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd.

The Race Equity Task Force, which consists of more than two dozen residents and community leaders and is chaired by Salem resident Shawn Newton, was formed by Mayor Kimberley Driscoll in order to conduct a thorough review of various city systems through a lens of racial equity and justice.

“The work that we’re doing is something that is barely going to scratch the surface. It is something that will need to be constantly tended to,” Driscoll said during the forum. “This is very much an opportunity to harness the power of our community for good.”

“My hope is that my colleagues and I can work to close this racial equity gap and be very intentional in combating racism,” added Newton.

To structure its work, the task force was organized into five subcommittees focused on culture, economics, education, health and public safety.

Representatives from each subcommittee provided a progress report on their group’s work during Monday’s forum.

Salem School Committee member Ana Nuncio updated the public on the Healthcare subcommittee, tying the lack of access to affordable housing to the general health of the minority population.

She reported that the lack of affordable housing in Salem had been causing overcrowding in available units, particularly for people of color, which she said creates “unsafe and unsanitary living conditions.”

According to an analysis conducted for Salem’s housing needs, Latinx and Hispanic people are twice as likely to live in crowded housing conditions than their white counterparts.

The subcommittee plans to develop tangible recommendations to bring about racial justice in health care.

Thomas MacDonald, former director of sales at the Hawthorne Hotel, spoke about the efforts of the Public Safety subcommittee, which has largely focused on improving relations between people of color and the police.

That committee has conducted a series of interviews with the Salem Police Department and gathered information from the public about the general attitude toward police in the city, he said.

“Salem is no different than the rest of the United States and (the) Salem Police Department has its issues as well. And those issues are being addressed,” said MacDonald, who cited the need for more culturally sensitive training.

Terrell Greene, family and student engagement director at New Liberty Innovation School, discussed the Community Culture subcommittee’s work toward building greater racial and cultural equity in Salem.

“We hope to see our local businesses and organizations commit to hosting at least one event to educate the community about civil rights, Black and brown history, and how to create an anti-racist community,” said Greene.

The group hopes to develop a summer culture fest of food, music and performances that would be focused on providing opportunities for immigrant engagement.

Salem School Committee member Manny Cruz said the Education subcommittee has been hoping to diversify the pool of educators in the Salem Public Schools, an effort that would be aimed at improving the cultural diversity of the curriculum, along with student and family engagement.

“In Salem, about 57 percent of our students identify as students of color, yet only nine percent of our educators identify as people of color,” said Cruz.  “The same disproportionality we see in the state certainly exists here in Salem.”

Jude Zephir, chair of the Economics subcommittee, reported that the committee has been working to establish relationships between different community stakeholders, with the long-term goal of closing the racial equity gap between individuals and businesses.

“Racism took a long time to create,” said Newton, “And it will take a long time to undo. But there are things that are within our power in the city of Salem that we can address.”

The Race Equity Task Force plans to continue engaging with the community with the aim of developing a list of recommendations that would be delivered to the mayor for implementation.