Second People’s Assembly Envisions A Decolonized, Anti-Racist Amherst

Photo: Amherst Racial Equity Task Force

Over 65 people participated in the Second People’s Assembly, held on Zoom last Sunday (11/15). The gathering was described by the organizers as an effort to create a space for Black, Indigenous, Latino/Latina/Latinx, Asian American, People of Color, immigrants, and allies to honor their ancestors and their different cultural backgrounds. The organizers invited participants to come together to create community, share experiences in Amherst, and “begin to envision the kinds of changes we would like to see in our community.” The meeting was organized by the Racial Equity Task Force of Amherst and was a followup to the first People’s Assembly held in July of 2020.

According to Amilcar Shabazz, one of the organizers, the gathering was a continuation of a process that was launched this summer in the wake of global outrage over the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and other violent and lethal manifestations of white supremacy and racist oppression in the U.S.  The first People’s Assembly was issue-focused and created a space where people could express their concerns and raise questions to Town of Amherst government officials including Scott Livingstone, the Town’s Chief of Police. Following The First People’s Assembly, the Town Manager established a working group tasked with reporting on the Town’s public safety effort and how it might be changed, and with reporting on the present system of accountability of the Amherst Police Department. The Racial Equity Task Force declined to be directly involved in the Town Manager’s process absent a plan for the robust and continuing engagement and consultation with the people, especially people of African descent, indigenous people, and others here who are most acutely underserved and over-policed.

The Second People’s Assembly was not focused on the police per se, though the problem of policing did come up in small-group discussions. Rather, the focus was on building community. The assembly was bilingual with presentations in English followed by translation into Spanish, and with participants encouraged to also speak in their own Native language. The proceedings opened with a welcome and greeting from Cuahutlatolli Jose Lugo, who shared traditions from the Hispanic movement going back to indigenous teachings, “creating space where we can bring our diverse voices together and bring them into the larger community.” Lugo also shared a brief video of a ceremonial community centerpiece that he and his family and Assembly organizers had created outside of New Africa House, on the UMass campus, the Friday before the Assembly. The centerpiece was made up of contributions of flowers, candles, incense, messages, memorials, and good wishes and aspirations for the work of the Assembly.

The Assembly itself was co-hosted by Lugo and community organizer/facilitator D.W. McCraven, who opened the meeting by reminding the assembled that they were meeting on stolen land and that all who gathered were engaged in a process of learning how to deal with the oppressive forces of colonialism that have shaped our experiences. McCraven reminded the assembled that there are many ways to be present as a community and that this often begins with getting to know each other better. McCraven offered their own introduction, grounding it in an homage to their ancestors. People were then divided into small breakout groups where they had the opportunity to offer substantial introductions. Coming out of the breakout groups, many participants expressed frustration at not having had sufficient time to really get to know one another, and McCraven responded that this was an indicator of the work that we have to do to move toward becoming a community.

The agenda for the afternoon listed two questions that were to be the focus of community conversations:

1) What are things you heard today that may have surprised you as you got to know your neighbors and fellow community members?

2) What are things that you learned that made you happy or gave you strength?

With time quickly running short, the group nearly unanimously elected to focus on the latter question. People were divided into small breakout groups, and lively discussions ensued.

Centering Youth Voices
Coming out of the small groups, the organizers decided to prioritize hearing from youth participants. Several young people attending the meeting shared their thoughts on their own vision for community in Amherst.

Hosea Shabazz said he would like to see a community television resource that would enable young people in the community to bring their local culture to a larger platform and that would help facilitate wider appreciation and understanding of the cultural diversity in town. 

Gabrielle Davila said he would like to see the curriculum in the schools diversified so that it isn’t centered around whiteness and so that it offers opportunities to contend with colonial discourses. Reading lists need to be expanded for both background and experience (e.g. black narratives should not only focus on oppressive experiences). 

Kinga McCraven talked about the colonial roots of Amherst and how its history has shaped the present but is also missing from most people’s understanding of the way things are in the town. She asked, “how do we undo some of that?and, how does it carry on into our schools and our daily life as a town”? She noted that People of Color in this town often experience violence from White women in White women’s failure to acknowledge the reality of discrimination and oppression common in the lives of many People of Color. She also mentioned the need to build intergenerational relationships. Youth feel disconnected (within the town) and not mentored/supported by the older generations. And she wondered, how can young people feel safe in this town when there is so much unacknowledged discrimination and so little support?

Curry Kautz, a student at UMass, talked about the oppressive segregation at UMass and about how UMass is also separated/alienated from the Town. He said that even though he is at UMass and an Amherst resident, he constantly feels like an outsider. He suggested that we need to think more about decolonization and moving away from policing for the town to feel inclusive.

Small Group Discussions Rich With Suggestions
In the brief report-outs from the small groups, many suggestions were offered, a sample of which are provided below.

One group talked about creating a cultural and research center with a library and cultural programming.
 Another talked about lifting up and supporting the youth of the community, but also the need to take up and hold space for people who are excluded so that they can be seen, and heard, and acknowledged, and included, and healed. Another suggested that people are looking for a space where folks from different backgrounds and experiences and struggles could come together to learn from each other and support each other. They noted that the Assembly was a good first step toward this end and that the enthusiasm and passion expressed by the participants indicated the need for such a space.

Isolda Ortega Bustamante, one of the organizers, spoke about how the Amherst Mobile Market had built community and how people in that group would like to see more of that – building a greater sense of community. She noted that we need to pay attention to economic injustice and need within the community, and that many people are struggling now because they are not earning a living wage, and that a living wage law could address that need.

Kathleen Anderson emphasized that White people have to take responsibility for dismantling white supremacy and in a way that they do not become the focus while undoing that.

The discussion concluded with people expressing appreciation for the feeling of community that had been built in a short period of time, the need for a space to have such discussions, and the desire for a third People’s Assembly in the near future.

The Assembly concluded with performances by Ruth Bass Green on piano and 

Hala Lord’s vocal rendition of “A Change Is Going to Come,” with new lyrics added for Amherst.

The Racial Equity Task Force of Amherst can be contacted here: racialequityamherst@gmail.com

Facilitator D.W. McCraven can be contacted through their web site: https://sites.google.com/view/countercultureeducator/home

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