Chilmark unveils plan for camp safety

CTAC and NAACP go back and forth over camp incident during hour-plus session with select board.

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The Chilmark Town Affiairs Council has issued a plan moving forward with its summer camp. -Rich Saltzberg

The Chilmark Town Affairs Council (CTAC) presented a plan geared toward preventing an incident similar to the one in July during a camp offered at Chilmark Community Center where two white campers put a tent strap around the neck of a Black camper.

During a Chilmark select board meeting Tuesday that attracted more than 60 participants, Suzan Lazarus represented CTAC, the nonprofit that operates the summer camp, in presenting a plan to move forward. The detailed plan is on the town’s website, but many of those in attendance complained it was not made available prior to the meeting so they could fully absorb it, and there were lingering questions about what happened.

The plan emphasizes inclusion and diversity, prioritizes training for staff and counselors, and establishes a values statement. 

“Chilmark Community Center expects all participants in its programs, including campers, counselors, staff, and adult members to engage in positive interpersonal relationships, including being inclusive and welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds, races, cultures, ethnicities, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, and abilities,” the statement reads. “Harassment and bullying will not be tolerated. Physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, or any speech, action, or behavior that creates a hostile or intimidating environment and does not treat all participants with respect is not allowed. Those who are unable to respect and abide by these values cannot participate in CCC programs.”

Lazarus reported that a search is underway for a new executive director for the camp, and four board members were added to the CTAC advisory board. They are Jay Brelis-Farrell, Jennifer Prakash, Robin Rivera, and Ismail Samad. 

“Over the past six weeks, we’ve worked really hard to develop a plan for the future of the center,” Lazarus said. “Our focus has been on creating an environment to ensure that all children feel safe and supported while participating in our programs, and we all share in the diversity of backgrounds, races, cultures, ethnicities, religious beliefs, gender profiles, sexual orientation, and abilities that the Island has to offer. We want to encourage and welcome to our programs engagement with the Black, indigenous, and Brazilian communities of Martha’s Vineyard, and this plan is developed with that in mind.”

Also on the select board’s agenda was the Martha’s Vineyard Chapter of the NAACP’s report issued on the incident, which found the incident was “racially insensitive.” 

Several members of the NAACP weighed in on CTAC’s plan, and expressed concern with not being invited to provide input into it or oversight over what happens moving forward. 

Lazarus said the “buck stops” with the board in reviewing how the plan is working. Members of the NAACP called for more transparency beyond select board member Warren Doty serving on the board as a liaison.

While Lazarus promised that procedures at the camp would follow the state’s anti-bullying and anti-discrimination law, Arthur Doubleday, president of the MV NAACP, urged the select board to pursue a bylaw that would require all camps in town to follow the anti-bullying and anti-harassment law, just as schools are required to do.

Doubleday praised Jeff Herman, who was acting as executive director of the camp at the time of the incident, for honoring the request of the Black child’s family to make the incident public. “We would not have known about this but for that email,” Doubleday said. “As a result of that, we have a number of community members here with thoughts on how to move forward.”

He pointed out that the NAACP’s conclusion that the incident was racially insensitive was based on having limited access to witnesses.

“Our conclusion is that while we couldn’t find intent, we did find it was racially insensitive. And what does that mean? That means that this incident was so horrific in how it played itself out that it reminded adults about adult problems, and these children’s childhood was interrupted by our issues through how they were interacting with one another, and that’s problematic.”

He suggested the town has an opportunity to lead when it comes to the issue of bullying and harassment. He reiterated his recommendation that the town adopt a bylaw that requires camps to take into account the state’s anti-bullying and anti-harassment law, and that compliance be overseen by the town’s health department, noting that former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh declared racism a “public health issue.”

He offered the NAACP’s assistance. “We have a number of smart individuals on our legal redress committee, and others who are here, who would love to make sure that this not only doesn’t happen at Chilmark Town Affairs Council, but doesn’t happen on the Island, period,” Doubleday said. “I think this is a real opportunity for the Island, because unfortunately we found something out of this tragic event, which I believe is just a lapse in public policy.” 

He urged CTAC to slow down and involve more of the community resources like the NAACP. “I think it’s problematic that CTAC is trying to solve the problem on its own,” he said.

Select board chair James Malkin said the NAACP’s recommendations would be taken under advisement.

When NAACP member Gretchen Tucker Underwood attempted to delve into the specifics of the incident and whether the boys were being offered psychological treatment, Lazarus responded saying that it would be inappropriate to provide specifics, but CTAC has “an agreed path forward with the family.”

“You say the family — which family?” Underwood asked.

The exchange prompted Malkin to interrupt and say that he wouldn’t allow the back and forth. “This isn’t a debate or argument session,” he said.

Paddy Moore, a member of the NAACP, complimented CTAC on the thoughtful and extensive proposals moving forward, but added she felt it fell short. “I think all of us are beginning to wake up in the last couple of years, if we were not awake before, to the basic racism in our society,” Moore said. “I think we need to frame explicitly that that exists in communities and organizations. It is that underlying piece, is what we’re grappling with here. I think making it explicit would bring some greater level of mutual understanding.”

Lazarus said she believes the plan addresses that, but perhaps needs more prominence: “We talk about how board members, the executive director, and key staff and counselors will have training to build cultural sensitivity, develop the skills needed to discuss race and racism, identify beliefs and practices that cause harm, understand the role of unearned advantages based on identity, and examine our attitudes and actions around race.”

David Vanderhoop of Sassafras Earth Education, who helped to organize the Island’s first celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day at Felix Neck, said he’s concerned that organizations like A Long Talk are being “brushed off” by CTAC. “We have an incredible opportunity to step up to the plate to say that we are no longer going to tolerate this type of racial instance here on Noepe, here on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said. 

Sandra Pimentel, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Diversity Coaltion’s board of trustees, called for patience. “It’s a good report. It’s a very good beginning,” she said, noting that the coalition was consulted by CTAC. “We really believe that their hearts are in the right place, and the community can do this in the end. It takes time, it takes thought, and it takes organizing steps.”

Ismail Samad, one of CTAC’s new board members, said he would not have joined the board if there would not be lasting change. “It is a first step, and the work we have to do requires a lot of trust building and honest conversation about not just what happened at the center, but about what’s happening on the Island now and in the future,” he said.

Doubleday said there’s a feeling of not being heard. “I appreciate the lip service Chilmark Town Affairs Council is giving us right now, but the select board can mandate it,” Doubleday said. “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, because I’m thinking about what happened to that young [boy]. I think that this select board really needs to use its talking stick here, and not accept that a not-for-profit can self-correct when you have a neighbor who is saying for the second time he’s not being heard, when you have the NAACP say we’re not being heard. I think the select board needs to really listen.”

Freedom Cartwright said a petition was circulated seeking transparency and community conversation. It’s important to understand the Island’s history, which includes land being stolen from the Wampanoag, with “real listening,” Cartwright said.

“What I’m hearing when I hear a lot of us expressing ourselves is not just current frustration, but generational frustration,” Cartwright said. “And when I hear people in white bodies feel defensive, what I’m experiencing is what happens when Black, brown, indigenous people speak clearly. And so this really goes again to how much we need honest dialogue and conversation on this Island about all the things that have happened in the past.”

Malkin praised those who participated, and encouraged more forums. “While we have 60-odd people on this fairly lengthy conversation, I think this goes across the Island — all six towns. I think this would include Chilmark and go beyond Chilmark as well.”

Doty agreed: “This is a good discussion, and I think if we could carry this discussion on, it would be great.”

In other business, the board unanimously endorsed Caroline Drogin as children’s librarian. The board also unanimously approved paving Squibnocket Road. 

Meanwhile, the select board received an update on the public safety building. Select board member Bill Rossi said permits are in place, but they’re waiting for the architects to get the bid package out.

Town administrator Tim Carroll said bond anticipation notes come due on Jan. 27. He said financing needs to be in place before then, or it will have to be rolled into temporary financing, with additional interest. “It would be helpful to have our bids in hand from the general [contractor] by the middle of December,” he said. Rossi said the goal is to have them by the end of November.

The board moved one of its November meeting dates from Nov. 16 to Nov. 23.