1st Franklin District candidates give nuanced positions on racial justice in debate








Published: 8/26/2018 10:34:43 PM

GREENFIELD — With about a week to go before the Sept. 4 primary, conversations about social, political and economic inequality ran through two hours of discussion by seven candidates for the 1st Franklin District House seat who gathered this weekend to discuss racism and racial justice.

Midway through the Saturday forum at the First Congregational Church, Natalie Blais of Sunderland fielded a question on whether Massachusetts, the first state in the nation to legalize slavery, owes a formal apology and further, how it should approach the concept of reparations. She said that in today’s national political climate, “Massachusetts has to step up in ways we never have before.”

Following her was Jonathan Edwards of Whately, who quipped he would try to not echo Blais too much, and answer the question in a creative way. Blais joked that Edwards was implying her answer wasn’t creative. After some good-natured repartee, Edwards carved out his own variation on the theme: “We need to make sure we apologize, and we need to make sure we have a conversation about how and why to move down the path of reparation.”

The moment was lighthearted but reflected the growing sense among candidates that they need to sharpen the sometimes nuanced distinctions among themselves as the Democratic primary contest comes to an end. The winner of the primary is all but assured a seat in the Legislature, as there is no Republican opponent in the November general election.

Often sharing answers that tend to be at best a few degrees of separation from each other, some of the candidates did what they could to show their personal strengths.

For example, while discussing issues that often showed their left-leaning tendencies, Blais played up her experience in the political and educational spheres, while Edwards often cited his business mind set and approach to problems through an economic lens.

“We need a bigger table where everybody can be heard,” Blais said in her opening remarks, and, “We need everyone at the table as we’re talking about strong, healthy connected communities.”

“I’m an individual who believes racial justice is economic justice and much of that is solved through good-paying jobs,” Edwards said in his opening remarks.

It was Montague’s Francia Wisnewski who used the forum’s racial justice theme to strike points that none of her fellow candidates could speak so pointedly to, as an immigrant from Colombia.

“I look at our Legislature, and I don’t see myself or people like me,” Wisnewski said. “I don’t see many women. I don’t see many people who have lived in the working class. I don’t see many small business owners. And I don’t see many people of color. That needs to change. Our Legislature needs diverse voices from diverse backgrounds, because that’s how we get new ideas and robust debate about the things that matter to people every day … across the commonwealth.”

Wisnewski was also able to double-down at the forum by bringing up one of the most recent indicators of the differences in the local communities on points around racial justice — abandonment of the long-time Turners Falls High School Indians mascot, which riled up a vigorous and lengthy debate in Montague and Gill over the past two years.

“It was better to come together to have a change that will represent all,” Wisnewski said, who added later she believes some of her lawn signs had been stolen from around Montague because of this stance, of who she is as a person and the fact that “people like me and people who represent minorities are not the voice of the current (state) leadership.”

Nathaniel Waring of Sunderland also spoke to the issue, despite what one constituent told him could cost him votes because he didn’t want to “alienate the working white man.”

Waring explained he’s part Native American — something he said he’s been hesitant to bring into the contest. He said that as someone who is seen as white, he is exposed at times to remarks he has seen as racist. He told a story of seeing this while working jobs in Montague as a cablevision technician.

“I cannot tell you how many times I had to sit in someone’s living room while I’m installing their cable, listening to them talk about how awful it is that the (Turners Falls) mascot has been changed,” Waring said. “On more than one occasion, I threw up in my car on the way out.”

Topics covered different approaches to what the candidates could do to improve on perceived racism and racial injustice, both locally and in the state at-large.

The style of the forum did not ensure that all candidates could answer the same questions. Four candidates were asked one question and then the remaining three were asked a different question, in an effort to cover as much ground as possible.

Christine Doktor of Cummington delivered a couple points to applause from the crowd of a few dozen, at an event that wasn’t necessarily suppose to invite any type of response from the audience.

She pointed to Georgetown University’s decision to help make reparations for descendants of slavery. The audience applauded her assertion that people will get education for free as a result of the Georgetown decision and that other universities should consider the same, although the Washington, D.C., college is not actually offering free education, but “preferential admissions.”

Doktor, a lawyer and a farmer, also called for the reconsideration of ownership of land. She said people of color should have land they can farm, too, ultimately to work “against the banking and finance system we’ve set up in our country.” Doktor called these financial institutions the “tools of the master.”

Kate Albright-Hanna of Huntington answered the first question of the forum with an answer about the inherent biases in the educational system, and questioned whether curriculum and textbooks should be reviewed with that in mind.

“There are things that happen across our country that we need to look at and we need to rewrite our textbooks,” the former CNN journalist and director of video for Barack Obama 2007 campaign said.

When talking about racial bias and a recent incident at Smith College when an employee called the police on a black student who was suspected of being “out of place” while eating lunch on campus, Casey Pease of Worthington told a story of a family member who is currently training to be a police officer. He said she is currently going through the academy and when he asked her if racial bias training is a part of the curriculum, he said she told him it is not — which was something he said he’d like to work on.

“These conversations have not come up enough in our past forums,” Pease said. “No matter who you decide to vote for, stay involved in the process.”

Reach Joshua Solomon at:


413-772-0261, ext. 264


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