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Woonsocket City Councilmember James Cournoyer responds



In response to Woonsocket City Council establishes a “Racist Policies Review Advisory Board” with little input from community Councilmember James Cournoyer sent the following email:

I saw your typically slanted article with the usual misrepresentations – starting with the headline stating that the Council established a board “with little input from the community”. That is nonsense. I made the all members of the Council, including your favorite social justice warrior, Alex Kithes, aware of the subject resolution way back on June 5.
Similar to the Resolution he put forth in connection with the Council designating the month of June “Woonsocket Pride Month” wherein he established an on-line petition to obtain public input, he had ample time to do one of his “petitions” on this subject – but he didn’t. More fundamentally and contrary to your misleading headline, the Council absolutely did consider input from the community – we spent over an hour discussing and debating WATCH’s input. That said, since you posted WATCH’s email to the Council, by all means please post my below response to WATCH that was sent to them yesterday morning.

Cournoyer included the following email, which he sent to the WATCH Coalition:

Thank you for your email.
If you have an interest in serving on the advisory board, I encourage you to please notify the City Clerk so that the Council may take your interest into consideration.
With respect to your request to amend the Resolution to specifically carve out roles based on your identity criteria, I respectfully disagree with such an approach, not the least of which is that, by doing so, we would be constraining ourselves before we even got started. What would happen if we enacted your proposed Amendments and we did not get any interest from at least two Asian, two Latinx and two Indigeneous people? The answer is that we could not move forward, as we would not be in compliance with the restrictions you placed in the Resolution. Moreover, the amendment proposed on your behalf by Councilman Kithes at Monday’s meeting would have precluded some potentially very valuable and viable candidates by virtue of the fact that he wanted to limit the participation to 10 people comprised as follows: “two board members must be Black; at least two members must be Latinx; at least two Asian; at least 2 Indigenous; at least two must be members of the LGBT+ community; at least two must be women”. So what if we wanted to include the white gentleman that participated and presented at the REI Groundwater training/presentation that was conducted back in January? By virtue of the restrictions offered by Councilman Kithes, that gentleman, or someone like him, would simply not be able to serve – all the slots would have been taken up by his preconceived list.
Having said that, I am frankly disappointed in your reaction and comments towards this effort.
As I noted last evening, I do have a bias – a bias towards action. I would like very much to move past the rhetoric, the slogans and the political talking points and instead set about actually doing something tangible to fix that which may be broken – knowing full well that this effort is but one small piece of the larger puzzle.
You stated in your initial communication that “we cannot ignore the fact that members of City Council have openly denied, minimized, and ridiculed the existence of oppression”. With respect, I disagree. I suspect that comment is the result of the frequent misrepresentations of the discussion the Council had in connection with Councilman Kithes’ resolution last Fall seeking to denounce white nationalism and white supremacy. The majority of the Council amended the resolution so as to not limit the denunciation to just “white supremacy”, but rather to “any and all forms” of suppression. And in fact, you yourselves have made our case and proven our point when you wrote “This board would be responsible for reviewing every ordinance, policy, procedure, and practice of the city of Woonsocket to determine if racism or any other form of oppression is present.” Indeed, there are many forms of oppression and suppression – and all of them should be denounced.
Further, the Council’s amendment to Councilman Kithes’ white supremacy resolution noted that his resolution was a statement without tangible action. Specifically, the majority of the Council stated: “notwithstanding the fact that to the knowledge of the City Council as a whole there have been no instances wherein any member of the City Council or any member of City government has espoused, embraced or otherwise practiced, advocated or supported an ideology of white supremacy and notwithstanding that such a resolution is of dubious consequence in so much as it does not create, repeal or request any law or legislation or otherwise direct or instruct tangible action, other than expressing what the majority of the City Council believes is a statement of the obvious in connection with the ideology of white supremacy”.
During the discussion, I specifically asked for examples where the City, in any official capacity, had laws, policies, procedures or practices that supported in any way white supremacy or racism. I received no answer. My question was in no way to suggest that these issues don’t exist in the world, but as a City Councilman, it is laws, policies, procedures and practices that I am in a position to do something about and I am eager and happy to do so – and when someone asserts or suggests that there is a problem, I don’t think that it is unreasonable to ask for the specific details so that we can actually address the problem in a tangible way, rather than just talk about it and pay it lip service.
You should know also that I did in fact reach out to several community organizations that serve low to median income Census Tracts and Black community organizations regarding the resolution and had their concurrence and positive feedback. The process is and will remain fully transparent.
In any event, I would encourage you to engage fully and have a little faith – don’t assume the worst.
Happy to discuss further – feel free to call me.

Here is the first email sent by the WATCH Coalition to every member of the Woonsocket City Council:

We regret that our statement regarding Resolution 20 R 60 was not released until shortly before tonight’s City Council meeting. While we wish we were able to thoroughly review the resolution and create thoughtful recommendations to improve it further in advance, we also have to fulfill our roles as parents, educators, mentors, and community leaders. Regardless, we should have been more expeditious and timely in our communication, and we were not. For that, we are sorry.
We would like to take this time to clarify our stance on Resolution 20 R 60. We support the establishment of the Racist Policies Review Advisory Board, but what we were requesting was greater clarity in how the board will be assembled. We believe that documenting such criteria will go a long way to create greater accountability and transparency. We also still firmly believe that the board should consist mostly of people with direct experience and expertise in the forms of oppression that the board is tasked to investigate, and that documenting this stipulation is a simple way to ensure that every effort will be made to create such a board.
Our request for transparency and documented criteria is not an attack on the qualifications of sitting council members. Rather, it is an opportunity for us as a city to guarantee that we are attracting and seriously considering the most highly qualified candidates. Our request for consistency and transparency was never intended to be a slight towards anyone. We simply want what is best for our community here in Woonsocket.
We recognize that votes have already been cast, but we would also like to share what our suggested amendments were. They are attached to this email. Though this meeting did not go as anyone had planned (especially given the absence of the Good & Welfare portion in light of the covid-19 crisis), we look forward to working with city officials to pursue a version of Woonsocket that is cohesive and just.

Here is the second email sent by the WATCH Coalition to every member of the Woonsocket City Council:

A resolution has been proposed by members of the Woonsocket City Council to establish a “Racist Policies Review Advisory Board.” This board would be responsible for reviewing every ordinance, policy, procedure, and practice of the city of Woonsocket to determine if racism or any other form of oppression is present. While this Advisory Board may be an opportunity for us to be frank about oppression in Woonsocket, the lack of detail in the resolution as written leaves much room for the board to be dangerously ineffective.
According to the resolution, the board would be approved by the City Council. Every member of Woonsocket’s City Council is White; all but 1 is a man; only 1 is a member of the LGBT+ community. Given that the City Council is largely composed of people who do not experience most of the forms of oppression that the Advisory Board is tasked with finding, it is doubtful that they are in the best position to approve of the board’s composition. Without clearer stipulations regarding the composition and assembly of the Advisory Board, this resolution puts far too much power in the hands of people who are not equipped to use it effectively. It is vitally important that the Advisory Board reflects the demographic backgrounds of the people who experience the forms of oppression that the board is expected to investigate, and who possess the expertise to understand and recognize oppression.
While we do not believe that it is impossible for people outside of an identity group to recognize injustices faced by that group, we cannot ignore the fact that members of City Council have openly denied, minimized, and ridiculed the existence of oppression. How can the people of Woonsocket trust that this board will be assembled in good faith and will consist of people who will make a genuine effort to explore possible injustices in Woonsocket? Without amendments to this resolution, and legitimate efforts to assemble a diverse board of people with experience and expertise in social marginalization, we cannot in good faith support Resolution 20 R 60 as it is currently written. For this reason, the WATCH Coalition asks that the Woonsocket City Council tables the vote on Resolution 20 R 60 until the next scheduled meeting. We would like to use this time to work together with the members of City Council to revise this resolution to the satisfaction of the community.

About the Author

James Cournoyer is a Woonsocket City Councilor.