Community activists and political figures voice disillusionment with body that “has no teeth”
As the country saw the growth of the racial justice movement and responses to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, the City of Everett launched its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission, a body intended to bring about a stronger culture of social consciousness. The mission of the group is to help drive systemic change to meet diversity challenges, but community members and political figures have spoken out, stating that they do not believe the commission has led with a commitment to transparency or reflects the concerns of the public.
Everett is one of the most racially diverse cities in the Commonwealth. Yet representation in government does not mirror this reality, with the majority of Everett’s City Council being composed of white people. According to the US Census QuickFacts page for Everett, the percentage of its population that is “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino” as of April 1, 2020 was 43.6%. As a result of this inconsistency, residents are questioning if the DEI Commission has the power to propel change.
“Nothing has happened substantially that will address the problems that we have in the city, in terms of how the communities of color are represented, are accessing services, are part of conversations, and part of municipal bodies or spaces where decisions are being made,” said Edwin Argueta, a resident, community activist, and member of the Safe & Welcoming Coalition, though not a spokesperson for the group. He added, “There’s certainly evidence that there is a pattern of behavior. We deserve a lot better. We work hard, we need a type of government that really addresses the needs, the concerns, the worries, the dreams of everybody who lives here.”
The commission is chaired by Bishop Robert G. Brown of Zion Baptist Church, and it was established in June 2020. Local watchdogs have called the makeup of the body problematic, explaining that many representatives have conflicts of interest. Some are members of the police department or are Everett City Hall staffers, rather than people who “deal with our community members on a daily basis,” Argueta said.
Meetings of the commission have been very private and not inclusive of the public. The few forums that have been held were not well publicized, and there was initially resistance to holding them in multiple languages, which would have been appropriate for a body dedicated to diversity, Argueta added. Brown, the chair, expressed that he did not wish to comment about the commission other than to provide details of its launch.
Laura Rótolo, a staff counsel and community advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, noted the role that a local resident advocacy organization has played in responding to the DEI Commission and the presence of racism in the city.
“The Everett Safe & Welcoming Coalition has for years worked to create a more inclusive Everett where its diverse population can feel a sense of belonging and where issues of racism are addressed,” Rótolo wrote in a statement. “The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission was created as part of Mayor Carlo DeMaria’s declaration of racism as a public health crisis. While an important first step, the Everett Safe & Welcoming Coalition has expressed concerns about the commission’s transparency and accountability to the public. For example, the public at large has not seen information about the mission, duties, or work of the commission. Such transparency is crucial if the commission is to have an impact on anti-racist efforts in the city.”
Antonio Amaya is the executive director of La Comunidad, a nonprofit organization that serves the Latino American community in Everett. He joined the DEI commission in April 2021, after requesting that someone from his organization be part of it. He was finally sent an invitation to join, but in the nearly year since has found all of the commission’s work has been “internal,” and not connected to the outside.
“The commission is working, in a way, but definitely not working, in another way,” Amaya said. The nonprofit director is considering leaving the commission for two main reasons. First, in the past few months, he has not received any invitations to meetings. He does not know whether the commission has met at all, he said, because they have not communicated with him via email, text, or any other method. Second, he is dismayed with how the commission has failed to disseminate information to the public.
We asked the City and DEI Commission Chair Brown for specifics, but they declined to share any information.
City Councilor Gerly Adrien is the first Black woman to serve on the Everett City Council, and is currently running for mayor. Prior to the formation of the DEI Commission, Adrien requested a special committee that dealt with equity and diversity. She also said that she put in a request to create her committee on the Council agenda on a Thursday, when on the following Monday, Mayor DeMaria announced that he wanted to create something similar, and her proposal was voted down. Adrien did accept a seat on DeMaria’s DEI Commission, but said that she had hoped for a more open and inclusive committee. She eventually decided to “take matters into [her] own hands” by releasing videos on social media.
Adrien said DEI Commission Chair Brown met with the councilor to inform her that her behavior was unacceptable. In her efforts, Adrien also requested that the mayor’s administration disclose how many people of color or immigrants were hired by City Hall, a question that also led to tensions. Eventually, Adrien was “kicked off” from the commission. Looking back, the councilor said there are many ways the body should run differently.
“I thought that wasn’t independent enough,” Adrien said of how most commissioners work for Everett. “So I said that was wrong. I thought there should have been more regular Everett residents on the commission. That was the first thing. The second piece was, I thought all of our meetings should have been public or on Facebook Live or on Zoom, where everyone could hear everything. They did not want it that way.” Adrien added, “I felt like we were fighting so much about what we were going to do, versus actually working on what we were going to do.”
Adrien provided an image of a letter that she received from Brown, dated December 2020, which outlined a chain of events that led to her leaving the commission. The letter called emails that Adrien sent “threatening and insulting,” and accused the councilor of publicly disparaging the commission.
“Since the beginning, your attitude towards the commission has grown increasingly contentious,” Brown wrote. “We can only speculate as to why that is the case, but it appears to stem from the fact that your own request to lead a diversity group through the City Council did not receive support. There is no member of this commission who does not take the reality of discrimination and the issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity seriously. … However, your approach in working with the commission to address these issues has been to be critical of most suggestions that weren’t your own…” The letter closed by saying, “You were not ‘kicked off.’ You made a conscious decision to remove yourself from it in word and deed.”
Argueta, the local activist, said he hopes that members of the public will be able to articulate their own ideas to the commission. For a group dedicated to expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the city to be truly effective, it must work on behalf of its community members and be a more transparent body.
“At the end of the day, we deserve change,” Argueta said. “We hope to work in a collaborative manner. We’ve done it in the past, and it’s been hard. We have demonstrated that it’s not just good to voice disagreements or voice disappointments and concerns, but [we] also have ideas that could create solutions.”
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.