Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle acknowledges comments made to high school student were ‘wrong’

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Staff Writer
Published: 4/21/2022 9:28:45 PM
Modified: 4/21/2022 9:27:29 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Facing allegations of making racist remarks to a student in a high school civics class, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle came before the City Council on Wednesday and acknowledged that her comments were “wrong” and vowed to take steps to “break down barriers.” 

“At the We the People practice session, I intended to share my perspective about implicit bias that might factor into the judges’ decision,” said LaChapelle, referring to an upcoming competition for the class. “Yes, I swore. Yes, I had a rough morning. Not excusable at all. But human.

“As soon as I learned of the effect my words had on the student and family, I reached out directly before I left on vacation. I met with the parents, superintendent, principal and We the People instructor, and I wrote letters to the family and the class that was present,” she continued. 

In a public Facebook post that has since been deleted, the mother of the high school student alleged that LaChapelle made “racist remarks” to her daughter in front of the whole class late last month and “used the F-word” before she left the class.

The post quoted the mayor as saying, “You are different … you don’t talk like a white person.” And then the mayor later said, “No one f---ing cares … I had a rough morning,” according to the post.

At the urging of Shawn Sheehan, a science teacher at the high school and president of the Easthampton Education Association, School Committee Chairwoman Cynthia Kwiecinski stated on April 12 that the committee would undertake an investigation into the exchange. Kwiecinski could not be reached for comment on Thursday.   

LaChapelle indicated that her comments were intended to strengthen the students’ argument at the class’s upcoming competition by acknowledging factors that are out of their control — the bias often faced by people of color — but were interpreted differently by the student and family.  

“I assumed, incorrectly, that they would understand my intent, but I was wrong. As a woman, I am familiar with bias, but being the other is not my experience. My presumption should not have caused harm, but it did,” the mayor said. “I should not assume that the audience would understand my intent and I fully appreciate the mistake I made and I will do my best not to do it again. I will update the council and resident of our community in my personal and professional steps to break down barriers, and I firmly believe these barriers must come down for our community’s health and success.” 

Prior to LaChapelle’s statements at the council meeting, a couple people spoke in support of the mayor and described her as an ally. 

Grace Moreno, executive director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said that time and time again Black and Brown people are statistically treated differently.

“I come before you today because I do not have a white voice. I do not have a white voice when I go to get a loan at the bank. I do not have a white voice when I get pulled over by the police. I do not have a white voice even though you can see that I don’t have an accent, not a Texan one from where I emigrated. Not a Boston one for where I’ve lived for the past 25 years,” said Moreno. “But when I walk out into the world, my voice is not white because it’s coming out of my thick brown lips and my brown round face. Why isn’t my voice white? Because ladies and gentlemen, we live, as has been heightened in the last five years, in a racist society where the playing ground is not fair.”

In December, the Boston-based LGBT chamber announced at a press conference in Easthampton alongside LaChapelle its expansion into western Massachusetts and that it was in the process of staffing a new officer at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. The Black Economic Council of Massachusetts and the nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights also announced plans to open new offices in western Massachusetts next year.

“Our chamber alongside the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Lawyers for Civil Rights and others, have been welcomed to western Massachusetts by no one else than Mayor Nicole LaChapelle,” she said. “What we need to make that happen is allies, white allies. People that know the inside game. Mayor LaChapelle is that person.” 

Dr. Lomax R. Campbell, who attended the meeting via Google Meet, said it was important for him to call in from a conference he was attending in Rochester, New York, to share his perspective on LaChapelle and the work she was doing. 

“I definitely do not have a white voice and I have been working with Mayor LaChapelle, her administration and several community partners on racial equity work from major investment to racial equity training to beginning to talk about how to navigate racial sensitivities in the community,” he said. “I regard Mayor LaChapelle as an ally. (She is) really trying to authentically do real work to transform the community.” 

Campbell, who is the CEO and president of the business management consulting firm Third Eye Network LLC, helped facilitate virtual anti-racism and bias workshops from the anti-racist collective, People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, to roughly 50 city employees in two sessions last year. LaChapelle mandated department heads to participate in the workshops. 

The 18-hour workshops offered in August and October of 2021 were the first steps for leaders across departments doing focused work on equity and bias in local government, she said. 

Over the course of three days next week, Campbell will lead debriefing sessions from the workshops that will touch upon concepts like the frameworks on managing organizational culture and change, and the philosophical aspects of cultural difference. 

LaChapelle said that as long as she can find the funding for it, there will be another session in 2023 as she feels there’s value in these facilitated conversations. The two workshops cost a little more than $25,000, she said.  

“This is not a one then done endeavor. … We will keep having this conversation. It’s not sexy. It’s not fast and it might give people pause,” she said. “It’s not about being perfect or politically correct — some might walk out of a workshop and totally disagree, but the idea of this work is the most successful when it’s ongoing and organic, and allows authentic voice where there is a facilitated conversation. There’s not some magical solution to put in the water that erases racism or undoes bias.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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