Diversity Coalition seeks to eradicate racism

County Commissioners hear about ways to strengthen the Island community through increased equality and opportunity for people of color. 

Dukes County commissioner Leon Brathwaite, shown here at a past Steamship Authority board interview, suggests that town boards and entities should be seeking to increase diversity so the Island’s entire populace is fairly represented. — Rich Saltzberg

The Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coalition (MVDC), a recently formed racial equality and social betterment group on-Island, is seeking to form meaningful partnerships with Island organizations and entities in order to eradicate racism and strengthen our community. 

Dukes County Commissioners were the first municipal board on-Island to hear from the coalition at their meeting Wednesday, but the group will be making appearances before various local governmental entities in the near future.

According to MVDC founder Sandra Pimentel, the group consists of people of color and white people, all coming together to learn from the past and plan for the future. 

Although Pimentel said racism is not something that can be eradicated easily, since it is so deeply ingrained in white American society and culture, it is something that her organization strives for with each initiative they are involved in.

There are currently around 160 members in the coalition, and according to Pimentel, the members who are white understand that they must first acknowledge and understand their own biases before meaningful change can happen.

“We who are white recognize that we have been programmed to think we are better than our black and brown friends and others,” Pimentel said. “The challenge is to strike out any notion that we are smarter, more beautiful, more trustworthy, or less violent than those who don’t look like us.”

She said racism “isn’t accidental,” and has been embedded in generations of advantage for white people, and disadvantage for people of color. 

Looking back at generations of systemic inequality, Pimentel said MVDC’s goal is to look into the Island community and find ways to educate, inspire, and partner with other organizations that seek to do this work as well.

She said the MVDC is a diverse group of people, and she would like to see community entities adopt the same diversity and inclusion.

“We want to look into our communities and see boards and schools and hospitals and agencies that look like what we look like right now, with a diverse range of representation,” Pimentel said.

She said her organization is collaborating with the Island police departments to train around 60 officers in conscious and unconscious bias courses. That training has been postponed because of COVID, but Pimentel said she looks forward to resuming that element of community development.

Patricia Washington, a member of the coalition, said the MVDC doesn’t look to compete with other organizations, but instead seeks to partner with them and offer support for any racial justice initiatives that they might benefit from.

She added that MVDC has been doing extensive work with the Island school system, and is working on implementing additional racial equity curriculums for students of all ages.

Washington said the Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts Foundation has been involved in virtual informational sessions, along with a number of Island organizations, surrounding healthcare disparities on-Island for people of color. The information gleaned from those sessions, according to Washington, will help Blue Cross allocate grants and research studies that may create additional healthcare opportunities for people of color.

The coalition, Washington said, is also working on an initiative within the Island faith-based community where about five or six churches are coming together for a 10-week program about racial bias. 

Commissioner Christine Todd asked about the success the organization has had in Island schools, particularly in introducing racial literature into the curriculum. “And I mean beginning in elementary school and all the way up through high school,” Todd said.

Pimentel said she is having active conversations with MVDC members Richie Smith, who is the assistant superintendent of schools, and Bob Tankard, who has been active in the school system for decades. Both serve on the coalition’s education committee. Tankard, who is also a founding member of MVDC, is the liaison between the coalition and Island schools.

Commissioner Don Leopold encouraged MVDC to reach out to ACE MV, which he thinks would be a great partnership to benefit the Island community. “I would be more than happy to facilitate that introduction,” Leopold said.

Washington said one thing she has learned from her four years on-Island as a permanent resident, after joining several local boards, is that there are not many people of color representing the increasingly diverse population.

“When I look at the town government level, as I look down the membership, they are pretty much all people that look like you, not me. The Island community is becoming more and more diverse, and everyone should be represented and have a seat at the table,” Washington said.

Commissioner Leon Brathwaite said he thinks it could be helpful if at some point, the coalition could serve as a reservoir for people on-Island who might want to volunteer for positions on local boards or community organizations.

He said towns post open positions on their websites, but many folks don’t actively visit those websites, and so they don’t take advantage of those opportunities.

“If you guys could see those vacancies, and if you know of a person of color in that town who might be interested, you could say West Tisbury is looking for another person on the personnel committee, which we are, and point them in that direction,” Brathwaite said.