Listening is one of the hardest tasks in life. Parents need to listen to their children. Spouses need to listen to their spouses. Elected officials need to listen to their constituents. Never has listening been more important for Chestertown.

With the last-minute approval of the street murals, it seemed the Mayor and three members of the Town Council had listened to the Chestertown community at large, Black and white. (One Council member was recused because of his business relationships with the lawyer representing the white opponents.)

But the listening was short-lived.

Rev. Ellsworth Tolliver, Ward 3’s Council member, proposed a five-point Resolution admitting Chestertown’s racism and creating a Human Rights Commission to address that racism. The Resolution passed but only by placing its statement of authority in limbo.

Instead the Council adopted the Chestertown Unites Against Racism Program offered by the Mayor. It is a slick, professionally produced power point complete with a logo. But it has no teeth. It has no funding; no one is designated to produce the 52 weekly videos to start in November; no one is identified to provide the Mayor and Town Council with diversity training—the list goes on and on, all unfunded and with no one responsible.

This is not leadership, and it is not listening.

Contrast Rev. Tolliver’s proposal to establish the Human Rights Commission which was introduced at the September 21 Council meeting and which has been fleshed out by a proposed ordinance to be discussed at the Council’s meeting on Monday, October 5. (A copy of Rev. Tolliver’s memo with his proposed ordinance is attached here.) Rev. Tolliver’s ordinance is the result of listening to the whole Chestertown community, both Black and white. It has teeth—there are seven specific duties and responsibilities set out. There is a unique group responsible for these duties—unique in two ways.

First, four of the seven Human Rights Commission members must be “People of Color.” No other Town commission or committee has this requirement.

Second, the Commission members are nominated outside the usual and customary political system that has produced less than a handful of People of Color on all of the Town’s current commissions and committees, which have some three dozen members. The nominees must still be approved by the Council but the behind-the-scenes nomination process is removed. The citizens of Chestertown will now see the nomination process and can be part of it if they choose. They can suggest someone to serve; they can offer to serve if they want. Truly, this Commission will be “of the people.”

Rev. Tolliver has been a strong leader in his Ward 3 and in greater Chestertown. He has not done this alone. Ward 4 Councilwoman Meghan Efland has worked alongside Rev. Tolliver from the beginning of the 100 Days of Action. She is a worthy public servant. It is clear that Rev. Tolliver could not have accomplished this without such teamwork. Back in March, Rev. Tolliver was all alone when he proposed the Anti-Slavery Proclamation to the Kent County Commissioners. Soon he had momentum when April was declared Anti-Slavery Month in Kent County.

Rev. Tolliver and Efland pushed forward a rapid permit policy to help citizens and groups like Social Action Committee for Racial Justice hold peaceful protests without long delays. They listened to citizens like Wanda Boyer, Maria Wood, and Arlene Lee when they proposed the Black Lives Matters murals. Despite the opposition of the Mayor and Councilmen David Foster and Tom Herz, their leadership prevailed. Through their leadership, they made the Mayor and the other Council members listen to the whole community.

The Council must listen again and hear that our community wants real change with real accountability by real people, not just a power point program of unfunded promises. Just like many of us of a certain age or background, the Mayor and Town Council must understand that they are coming late to understanding racial justice. Moreover, it seems misplaced that any of us should try to supplant the leadership of Rev. Tolliver. We would be the oddest of curators for racial justice reforms having never lived the racial injustices of Kent County, unlike Rev. Tolliver, his constituents, and their collective ancestors.

Please contact the Mayor and Town Council and let them know you support Rev. Tolliver’s proposed ordinance for the Human Rights Commission. Here’s how:; (David Foster); (Tom Herz); (Rev. Tolliver); (Meghan Efland). Ask that your letter be made part of the meeting record. Contact (Kees de Mooy) and tell him you wish to speak at the October 5 meeting; he will send you the Zoom link.

Barbara Jorgenson

Feature Photo by Cary Bass-Deschenes, Flickr Commons