Middletown passes ‘historic’ measures on racism, LGBTQIA rights
Middletown Press, July 8, 2020
By Cassandra Day
Middletown city officials made “historic” progress at this week’s council meeting, adopting resolutions dealing with racism and becoming the third municipality in the state to sign on to the Equality Act.
Common Council members also passed an ordinance to create a Permanent Task Force on Anti-Racism, which requires a change to the city charter.
Resident input on agenda items was robust and passionate during the four-hour meeting, which stretched past 11 p.m., according to Mayor Ben Florsheim. It was streamed live on the WebEx platform.
Only New Britain and Torrington have enacted similar resolutions related to the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling on June 15, which added the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 related to employer discrimination. “We also need to codify that into law nationally — not just in the workplace, but in all walks of life and areas,” said Florsheim, who believes Middletown is the first to address the two pressing public health issues.
“The city of Middletown will continue to strive to promote justice, champion equity, ensure all voices in the community are represented, end oppression, and ensure that the promise of equality is realized for all, including for the members of the LGBTQIA community, and for the city’s Black and Black transgender residents,” the new ordinance says. “It says something exciting about Middletown. There was an incredible amount of public participation,” said the mayor, who saw about 50 people queued up to speak. “Our community wants to be involved. They spoke eloquently about their positions and I respect that,” said Majority Leader Gene Nocera.
Council members also watched a presentation of the final report on the anti-racism initiative. Passing the ordinance to create a committee requires a charter change. The findings will be used as a template for a soon-to-be created panel.
The report was created in conjunction with the National Conference for Committee & Justice and the city’s Human Relations Commission.
“It puts us way ahead of other communities that are trying to get caught up, because we have clear data coming from our residents,” Florsheim said. Over the next few days, work will begin on recruiting community members for the anti-racism panel. “There will be a lot of interest, which is exciting. The folks we want to have on the task force are going to be really experienced people in field of racial justice and equity work,” Florsheim said.
“The common thread we want is a diversity of background and experiences, but some real experiences in doing anti-racism work,” he said.
Monday night was a major step in the Black Lives Matter movement, said Middletown Council Minority Leader Phil Pessina, noting he did a lot of “soul searching” on the matter.
“I sat back and thought about what we had just passed as a council. We’re really starting to change the narrative now. The silent voices have come forward in a holistic manner to address the issues and perceptions they see in a really great way,” he said. “It was a total community buy-in.”
“Last night really was a historic day for Middletown, moving proactively and progressively to look at the issues our community and state faces to develop plans to remediate issues — not just talk about it,” Florsheim said.
“It was really the people who said they wanted to see this happen,” he said.
racism ordinance back to top
The council also passed an ordinance declaring racism a public health crisis in Middletown.
“That was the impetus of Middlesex Health and Community Health Center reaching out, saying we know those intersections exist, know the disparities exist in how people receive health care and treatment, and that needs to be part of the work it does on health,” Nocera said.
During the public session, a large number of people also talked about renaming the new junior high school.
Pessina said both sides were represented — those who want it to remain Woodrow Wilson and others hoping it will honor the Beman family, which was instrumental in Middletown’s participation in the Underground Railroad. “They made a profound contribution to our city.”
President Wilson, who lived in Middletown for two years and taught at Wesleyan University, didn’t have nearly as much impact on the city, Pessina said.
“Think about the slaves that came off those ships. They really didn’t know where they were going to go, and what was going to happen. The Beman family steps forward in a very humanistic way,” he said.
“They started to change the narrative in our city,” said Pessina, who recalled visiting a construction site downtown in the late 1970s or early 1980s when Dingwall Drive, then College Street, was being developed. Workers pointed out what he thought was a portion of the underground trail.
“The graduates of Woodrow Wilson really enjoyed the impact the school had on their lives. It’s great. But we have a very, very different population now,” Pessina said. “These young children — black, white, brown, whatever — they’re going to be going into a brand new school where they can learn about the Bemans family.”
Meanwhile, Pessina hopes Wilson graduates will “take a deep breath. See a change in the population, understand the impact they made for this community in guiding those slaves. It’s a different time.”