by: Brian Bushard
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
It’s been two and a half years since Charity Grace Mofsen woke up to see the words “N----r Leave” spray-painted on the front doors of the African Meeting House, where she had been the manager. The culprit has not been found.
It’s been six months since Rose Marie Samuels was shut down at a Select Board meeting when she asked for an update on the case, as well as another incident in which her son was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. The driver was never identified. The cases point to a single issue that looms over the island, Samuels said. That issue is race.
Two months before that meeting in March, before the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and Dion Johnson and the protests for justice that followed nationwide, Mofsen and several other islanders formed a group called Nantucket Equity Advocates to start asking how the town could address the issue of racism and racial inequity in town government and around the island.
“We’re not having easy conversations, and if someone’s not ready for it, it’s going to sting,” Mofsen said.
“I think it would be incredibly naïve to think that the horrors we’re watching over there couldn’t make their way over here. We’ve already seen enough evidence to know it would be completely irresponsible to not be taking active steps to make sure what we’ve already experienced doesn’t escalate any more.”
Sometimes, the racism is blatant. But more often, Mofsen said, it comes in more covert ways. It’s a lack of communication, a glance you get or a snarky comment you hear. The problem, she realized, is not just the overt examples of racism, but the systemic inequity ingrained in society through implicit and subtle biases.
Unitarian Universalist minister Linda Simmons called it “the water we swim in.” The point is, it’s everywhere.
“You can see those underlying issues,” said Shantaw Bloise, a member of Nantucket Equity Advocates. “It might not be as severe as someone murdered by the police on the island, but there are other prejudices and biases that are very obvious in the police department and we don’t want to sit back and watch and wait for an unarmed Black person to be murdered.”
For Theran Singleton, a special-education teacher at Cyrus Peirce Middle School, the issue is also about representation. It took 15 years of advocacy and pleading before she could say she worked with another female person of color at the school. For several of those years, she was the only Black woman teacher in the entire public-school system.
It’s a far cry from the diversity of students she sees walking through the hallways. As of 2018, 53.7 percent of students in the Nantucket Public Schools were white, 30.5 percent Hispanic, 10.6 percent African-American, 1.5 percent Asian and 3.5 percent of multiple race.
But the lack of representation goes beyond the schools alone. Only two of the police department’s 40 year-round officers are minorities. The only non-white member of an elected town board or committee is School Committee member Zona Butler.
“The first step is for our district to actively recruit people of color,” Singleton said. “As a staff, in order to represent the diversity of your students, you have to actively recruit.”
It’s also been an objective of schools superintendent Beth Hallett, who in February attended a minority job fair, looking to hire people of color who could help provide Nantucket students with teachers and people in leadership positions who more accurately reflect the racial makeup of the island.
The next step, she said, is to introduce a discussion of systemic racism into the schools’ curriculum. Part of that could be through common reads, like “How to be an AntiRacist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, which Hallett said high-school students will be reading this year. There also needs to be professional development for teachers and faculty, she said. Assistant town manager Rachel Day said town departments will adopt a similar strategy that includes the creation of an equity-inclusion strategic plan and an assessment of the town’s hiring practices. The town is currently in the process of hiring a racial-equity officer to oversee future racial-equity programs within town government.
There also has to be a push to build trust and understanding between people of color and white people on the island, Bloise said. It starts with communication.
“For me, the whole reason I wanted to be involved in this group is to create trust and a safe space for people in the community who feel as though they’ve been forgotten or ignored. Eventually, as this group grows, my hope is that we can be that space for people,” Bloise said.
“We need to keep having these conversations so we can recognize these pieces of prejudices and biases as downright racist situations, no matter how well-intended they are. If we don’t keep having those conversations, we’ll slip back to where we were before, and then as a person who speaks up about that, we’re forever dubbed the ‘angry Black woman’.”
It was a message that was central to a peaceful protest at Tom Nevers Field in June, attended by several hundred people. Two weeks later, island students, with Simmons, organized a candlelight vigil that drew approximately 500 people to the top of Main Street. The gathering was held to commemorate the lives of 50 of the thousands of Black men and women who have been killed over the past decade at the hands of police officers nationwide.
But the mission of Nantucket Equity Advocates goes beyond police brutality alone.
“It’s much bigger than that,” member Marita Scarlett said. “Let’s look at the other systems at play that cause these types of murders.”
It comes down to the way people are educated on race, she said. Often, it’s more of a mis-education than anything else.
“You’re not uneducated, you’re mis-educated, and that was intentionally done to you,” Scarlett said. “And now you have the right and the responsibility and the access to do better. Shame is such an ineffective emotion. Shame stops people in their tracks from moving forward.”
It means listening to people of color, or reading or watching documentaries on the history of systemic racism in the United States. It also means reaching out to people you wouldn’t ordinarily reach out to.
Nantucket is diverse, but it’s not integrated, Scarlett said. Creating meaningful change therefore requires more than hiring practices and training alone, she said.
“Nantucket continues to be a segregated place,” Scarlett said. “It may not be segregated by law, but there is not true integration, and until you are in proximity to people whose stories are different from you, until you’re able to trust and love that what other people are telling you is true, it’s too easy to distance yourself and say ‘that’s not true, that’s just people pulling the race card’.”
Moe Moore, also a member of Nantucket Equity Advocates, pointed to another message of the group. Creating racial equity is not something that can happen overnight, he said.
“This is a movement, not a moment,” Moore said. “If we keep hammering away at it, if we don’t totally repair it, we can at least make it better. Long after I’m gone, somebody is still going to be dealing with this issue.” ///
Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.