Diversity is a fundamental human value

Diversity is a fundamental human value

On Monday, Dec. 16, the Pawtucket City Council gathered at Arigna Irish Pub to celebrate the holiday season after our last meeting of the year. At the end of this gathering, 2nd District Councilman Mark Wildenhain threw two $1 bills at Councilor Elena Vasquez’s face and told her to “take a bus back to Colombia” in front of several council members and their guests.

Apart from the fact that Councilor Vasquez’s family is from Guatemala, not Colombia, Wildenhain’s behavior was breathtakingly disrespectful and reprehensible. And as Pawtucket reckons with what it means to be a 21st-century city, filled with people of different backgrounds, races, genders, and experiences, this incident is an opportunity to consider and act on issues of inclusion.

In a recent Valley Breeze article, remarks from fellow councilors insinuate that the incident was a “joke,” a “mistake,” or still, a “private matter.” While it may have been both of those things (a joke in incredibly poor taste, or a mistake that suggests its maker is ill-suited to serve in public office), it is nonetheless wholly unacceptable. And if it were ever a private matter, it no longer is.

Discussion from community members on social media shows the anger that people feel toward intolerance in our diverse city.

The incident also illuminates how structural discrimination works.

We – Councilors Vasquez and Kallman – are the only two women on the Pawtucket City Council.

Councilor Vasquez is the only person of color. Councilor Vasquez is in her first two-year term and Councilor Kallman in her second; at no time in Pawtucket’s history have there ever been more than two women on this body or more than one person of color. There have been many years in which there were no people of color or women representing us at all.As of the 2010 U.S. Census, 24.24 percent of Pawtucket’s population proudly identified as Hispanic or Latino, and 16.16 percent as black or African American. Approximately half of us are women. The fact that our representation is so lopsided matters for many reasons.

First, diversity is a fundamental human value. In other words, we value each other for, and not despite, our differences. An inclusive world is one where everyone can participate in the social, economic, cultural, political, and civil aspects of our city. Diversity among our elected officials helps ensure that the needs and experiences of different parts of our community are also represented, that their problems are heard and solved, and that their voices are honored. Our institutions thrive when they reflect the people they serve, and make everyone feel welcome within them.

In other words, representation matters because for too long, politics has leaned on old, male, rich, and white.

This means that those of us who are not those things – who may be young, poor, of color, female, or all of the above – have been the least likely to vote or feel connected to politics at all. Even in 2020, this remains all too common. What does it mean to have a Pawtucket council that is so homogeneous? That is so white, and male? Whose priorities does such a body represent? Whose worldview? Whose experiences?

These are questions that we must ask ourselves as we strive to make our communities more fair and inclusive.

ELENA VASQUEZ

Meghan Kallman

Pawtucket City Council