This is the second in a series of podcasts that highlight the work of organizations forwarding equity in Southeastern Connecticut (full transcript below). SCORE received a Partnership Grant from the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern CT (HIC) as part of the Collaboratives’ work funded by the Cross Sector Innovation Initiative Grant (CSII). This grant initiative is lead by the Center for Sharing Public Health Services (CSPHS) and Public Health National Center for Innovations (PHNCI), with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
SCORE Podcast Transcript
Nickie DeSardo: [00:00:00] When you do community work, it’s like a choir, so if you if you have a note that you need to hold for a really long time as a choir, what you do is you hold a note for as long as you can. And when you need to take a breath, you just take a breath and then you come back in. And so that’s what community work is like when you need to take a break and you need self care. You know, you do that and then you just come right back into it.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:29] That was Nikita DeSardo, director of programming at the Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity. I’m Isobel Barber of Truth Teller Consulting and the Health Improvement Collaborative of southeastern Connecticut. Let’s meet the other members of the SCORE team.
Esteban Garcia: [00:00:47] Esteban Garcia, Director of Finance
Anneliese Lapides: [00:00:49] Anneliese Lapides, Director of Community Engagement,
Ben Ostrowski: [00:00:52] Ben Ostrowski, Executive Director,
Serena Valentin: [00:00:55] Serena Valentine, Director of Operations.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:00:58] I had a chance to sit down on Zoom with the leadership team of SCORE in December of twenty twenty one. One of my first questions was about how they came together to become SCORE. Serena Valentine shared some important things right up front.
Serena Valentin: [00:01:13] We didn’t start out as the Southeastern Connecticut Organization for Racial Equity. We did just start off as a Facebook group of a bunch of people from East Lyme who had either gone to the protest or who were just in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and fighting for racial equity in our town.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:01:34] The protest that Serena’s talking about was over the May 25th, 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The town is East Lyme with a population of just under nineteen thousand. A small community on the southeastern shoreline of Connecticut. East Lyme is about eighty two percent white, Ben tells us more about the town and about the protest.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:02:02] The vibe of the town is that it’s perhaps a perfect place, and there’s a tendency to be able to flip the channel on the news. And so, yeah, I just I thought, Well, someone should try to see if there’s any support for some sort of protest here.
Audio from the protest: [00:02:25] [a presenter directs the crowd] So at this time, we will take eight minutes and forty six seconds on a moment of silence in honor of George Floyd. If you’re able, please take a knee.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:02:40] It was a big turnout at the protest, much bigger than I had expected. I think most people expected and that was galvanizing. The main takeaway from that was this should be step one.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:02:52] The protests got the attention of a lot of people, including those that would eventually become the leadership team at SCORE. It also caused a lot of social media conversations that brought people together to support racial equity. Serena shares her impressions of the protest and of meeting Ben.
Serena Valentin: [00:03:10] I attended the protest and I saw the turnout, and it was amazing. I just was so inspired by everything happening, and I didn’t want to just go to the protest and then just leave. And that was it. That’s all my contribution was. So I came up to him because it seemed like he was the one running it and who had organized it. And I just said, What can we do now? And that’s that’s where I met a lot of other people who wanted to get involved, and that’s how we all got started to.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:03:39] We all rapidly came to include Annalise Lapides, who had graduated with Serena in Twenty Sixteen. Annalise and Ben knew about each other and connected easily.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:03:50] Anneliese was introduced to me, basically from a teacher at East Lyme High School who recommended Anneliese as as, like, fantastic for this type of work.
Anneliese Lapides: [00:04:01] I will just say I didn’t know that, so that’s really nice.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:04:05] Really?
Anneliese Lapides: [00:04:06] Yeah.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:04:06] You didn’t know that?
Anneliese Lapides: [00:04:08] No, I didn’t know that. Oh- oh, very cool. Because I remember– Oh my heart. I remember I was briefly at the protest. I definitely was nervous with COVID, but I had reached out after because I was a part of the East Lyme for Black Lives Matter Facebook Group. And once I saw that like, it was a continuous thing, like people were pretty active in it. Still, after the protest, I connected with Ben
Isabelle Barbour: [00:04:37] As momentum grew. There needed to be some decisions about how to move the energy forward to get work done.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:04:43] After the protest, everything was happening online, right? And so it was just very like twenty first century grassroots kind of like tons of ideas just being like thrown out, left and right. And we were just not an organization in any way, and it was really exciting and good. A lot of people were involved and these things can kind of they take a lot of energy. And so as the weeks went on, it was becoming more and more clear who was really in it for the long haul. And that’s sort of how we started to round into form, basically.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:05:14] The group is really clear that having Esteban Garcia join them made a huge difference in their trajectory.
Esteban Garcia: [00:05:21] It was probably later in the summer after the East Lyme for Black Lives Matter Facebook group started to grow and started communicating there. That’s how I connected with with Ben, Nicky, Anneliese, and Serena. I was originally looking at it from a different lens. I have some experience with non-profit setting up nonprofits and you know in politics. I ran for Board of Education like in 2019, so I knew that they were interested in working with the East Lyme school system, so I already knew the people on the board. So I helped– my contribution initially, you know, was to make those connections with the board members and the superintendent.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:01] A desire to forward racial equity in East Lyme Public Schools quickly emerged as a priority for the group, and each of the leaders had a reason why this priority stood out for them. Here’s Nickie sharing her thoughts.
Nickie DeSardo: [00:06:15] I’m a former public school teacher and in New London, and so I grew up in East Lyme, but I was a school teacher in New London. It was the comparison of just the inequity between the two districts that motivated me to really want to be involved. And so when I first connected with Ben, I was like, I want to– I want to get into the school system and see how we can make some change there.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:06:43] Annalise and Serena, both women of color, had personal experiences with racism in the East Lyme School District that fueled and informed their thinking.
Anneliese Lapides: [00:06:53] Being a person of color, going through the East Lyme school system, how it would have been, just what could have been made better at the time when we were going through the school system, I think it kind of felt like we owed that to kind of be able to use our experience as people who went through the East Lyme school system to be able to share that and be like, personally, here’s what would have benefited me. Maybe that could be used for the future.
Serena Valentin: [00:07:20] Yeah, I could not agree with Annalise more. She took so many of the words out of my mouth because and I think that that’s something that Anneliese and I connect with a lot, not only because we both graduated from high school together in East Lyme in twenty sixteen, but because we both kind of shared that experience of growing up in East Lyme and being sort of outside of the norm. Like both my parents were born outside of the continental United States. They’re both bilingual. They learned English when they got here, and I have so many diverse cultural experiences that I didn’t know could be valued in a public school because I grew up from the get go in East Time. So I had no other, you know, from first grade through high school. No other experiences at a school that did celebrate diversity and multicultural students and teachers and all of that kind of thing. So I didn’t realize some of the negative experiences that I had throughout the East Lyme public school system until years after, until I heard people talking about it. And I went to the protest and I had conversations with people who had similar experiences that I didn’t even realize. We’re experiencing the same thing, just insensitivity and microaggressions and all of those kind of things.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:08:48] Esteban brought a different perspective. One informed by immigrating to the United States and raising children in East Lyme.
Esteban Garcia: [00:08:56] You know, I have a seven year old and a three year old. Knowing that we in East Lyme, we live in a community that’s pretty homogeneous, very white and, you know, affluent for the most part– knowing that that’s not what the real world looks like.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:09:10] The group has been thoughtful about how best to reach leaders on the topic of racial equity, Anneliese describes.
Anneliese Lapides: [00:09:17] You know, I think we’ve –I think we’ve done a good job at calling people in rather than calling people out. I think we’ve kind of used that as our approach. We want inclusivity, so we are going to be an inclusive voice and call people into the conversation. It’s more about like, hey, these are the things that exist and this is what’s happening.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:09:37] The work with East Lyme Public Schools made an impact. Serena describes.
Serena Valentin: [00:09:42] We are the ones who really started the conversation with the superintendent in East Lyme at East Lyme Public Schools and the Board of Education at East Lyme Public Schools about racial equity and moving things forward with that. About how the minority recruitment plan for staff in the school district had not been edited or revised since 1998, which is the year that I was born. So we brought those things to their attention. We brought incidents that had happened when we were in school, which wasn’t that long ago to their attention, how those were dealt with, how that made us feel, how our experiences made us feel, but also our observations. And now they have a whole district wide diversity, equity and inclusion committee they meet– I think once a month. They have a five year plan for, you know, moving diversity, equity and inclusion forward. And they did an entire equity audit of the whole district, through a third party organization, so there wouldn’t be any bias. And they’ve done so much since we sort of appeared annoyingly nudging them.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:11:02] While education has been an important focus, the team has worked to bring awareness of racism to other sectors.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:11:08] In some senses, we have worked within every sector within East Lyme or many sectors, really. So whether it’s the Board of Finance, Board of Selectmen, Board of Education, so we’ve spoken before each of those boards to try to make different types of changes, whether it’s health care, education, policing, hiring, housing, things like that. I think we have made the most progress in education, but we are like, yeah, our goal is definitely to bridge beyond that. And I think we’re making progress there.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:11:44] As part of this. Anneliese, on behalf of SCORE, asked the East Lyme Board of Selectmen, the leaders of East Lyme, to pass a resolution declaring racism a public health issue. Here’s a clip.
Anneliese Lapides: [00:11:58] [Audio of Anneliese presenting, on Zoom, to the East Lyme Board of Selectmen] . . .And this pandemic has taught me a lot, but one of the things highest on that list is that the consequences of not caring about each other are fatal. And not only does this apply to COVID. It also applies to racism. It is a public health crisis, and so my organization SCORE is urging the East Board of Selectmen to declare racism a public health crisis so that we may take action for our region.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:12:24] The group has engaged in conversations with the East Lyme police, including with Police Chief Michael Finkelstein. Serena explains how it all got started.
Serena Valentin: [00:12:35] We didn’t know much about the way police departments work, the way that policing works in general. So those conversations were very educational for us.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:12:46] As SCORE’s work continued, their visibility grew and the group became a resource in the community. Annalise and Ben explain.
Anneliese Lapides: [00:12:55] Our name has been out there. We’ve been mentioned in the newspaper a few times like we get our name and kind of our mission out there that it’s– it’s hard for people to like– forget about it now at this point, I think.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:13:09] So in some cases, we get approached before going to ask whether people think they should go to the police or not.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:18] I asked the group who tends to call and Nicky had this to say.
Nickie DeSardo: [00:13:22] People that come to mind to me are parents reaching out because their children are being mistreated based on race, either at a sporting event or within the schools. And so I think it’s it’s mostly parents. And also other organizations reach out to us.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:13:41] Nicky also shared her thoughts about the group’s role in responding to community members.
Nickie DeSardo: [00:13:46] It’s not necessarily our role to help them navigate per say, but our role is to provide the options and resources and support what they decide to do. There’s a lot of reasons why people don’t report to the police. We, as an organization, need to respect people’s hesitation in reporting to the police.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:14:12] While SCORE was receiving calls, the East Lyme police were receiving a lot less. Ben describes.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:14:19] One of the questions we were asking in those conversations was about a basic sense of are racial motivated incidents being brought to you? Or do you think that’s an issue in East Lyme or even within the within the town or within the department? And our responses tended to be around. No, there’s not many calls that involve those types of incidents and just missing sort of that basic connection that, OK, that doesn’t answer the question. But certainly, it’s nice to know that we might be able to fill that gap at least a little bit. So some of these people seem to be stuck between going to the police and doing nothing and us as an alternative to be helpful in some other way is another place we can hopefully play a role. And so that’s why we started thinking like, OK, it’s a lot harder to make a whole organization change the way they collect data. So, yeah, so maybe we can be influential at least a little bit by bringing some direct evidence. We’re hoping, I think, to continue our police relationship a bit more
Isabelle Barbour: [00:15:24] While change can be slow. Nickie observed some changes that have happened in the last year.
Nickie DeSardo: [00:15:30] I do think things are changing in that if you look at just the last six months, a racial incident at the high school back in May was reported to the police. So the administration chose to to involve the police, and that student was charged with a hate crime that’s never happened before or if it did, it wasn’t public. And so those those incidences are now being reported publicly. Students are bringing it to the public because there is a walkout East Lyme High School in the last few weeks. So whether these incidents occurred and whether they’re truly being handled differently, they’re at least being exposed. And that definitely did not occur before
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:18] SCORE received a small Partnership Grant from the Health Improvement Collaborative of Southeastern Connecticut and used the dollars to support their expansion into school districts beyond East Lyme.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:16:28] Before you know, we have scholarships set up at different schools. We have for this grant, we’ve we’re using our money to fund DEI resources at schools beyond East Lyme and things like that. So we’re branching out.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:16:46] As the group hits their one year anniversary as an organization. They are thinking about what’s next and how to deepen the work, as well as address challenges. Here Esteban, Anneliese, Nicky and Ben share some thoughts.
Esteban Garcia: [00:17:01] We’re in the process of redefining like, what do we want to be in the next three to five years? But right now we’re, you know, we all have full time jobs or going to school full time or both so definitely, you know, we do this because we’re passionate about it. And like, like everybody said, you know, we every dollar that we’ve had, we bring it back to the community in the form of scholarships that we establish at New London and East Lyme so far. You know, we have a reserve for any other initiatives that we want to move forward.
Anneliese Lapides: [00:17:34] I would love to see just growth of involvement and community engagement. I would say that would be, I think, really amazing.
Nickie DeSardo: [00:17:45] Vision for long term would be that every single person in a leadership position in East Lyme or Southeastern Connecticut that they are receiving anti-racist training.
Ben Ostrowski: [00:17:59] Really like to have a narrative or a package somehow put together at some point of how we came start to now as a way of narrating what happened and if any body wants to start a similar thing.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:14] When I asked how people in the region and beyond can support their efforts, Serena and Nickie had a suggestion.
Serena Valentin: [00:18:21] We have merch. T-shirts, T-shirts, mugs, stickers, masks with our logo on it.
Nickie DeSardo: [00:18:31] And we take everything we’ve received– We’ve given, we’ve given out, used for scholarships or other supporting teachers, materials and feedback.
Isabelle Barbour: [00:18:41] It’s true their merch is awesome. I love my sticker. For more information about SCORE and for links to racial equity resources, please visit their website at SCORECT.com. Thanks.