I t was a high-voltage quote made during a recent meeting of our Affirmative Action Advisory Committee.
"I walked into City Hall," said Will Singleton, president of the local NAACP, "and I didn’t see anyone who looks like me."
Did Singleton mean tall? Distinguished? Good-looking? He’s certainly all that. No, he meant black.
The city NAACP has been around for decades. It has been active and progressive at times, while quiet as a church mouse during other stretches. In its most recent revival, it has come out with six-guns blazin’. It has challenged both city government and pubic schools to examine their hiring practices, and to make sure that a woeful lack of minority representation on both sides of those ledgers can at least be explained and validated at some level of understanding and common sense.
If it can’t, then they want some answers.
I wish both sides luck in clearing their respective hurdles. Because the process, I believe, will be both slow and unwieldy. Singleton and his local organization took a rather high tone at the onset of its current life. That’s OK, because the group needed to identify itself in clear fashion and lay out its concerns and agenda.
But any response shouldn’t be expected to be nearly as clear, quick and concise. First of all, this is New England, more specifically Pittsfield, where progress is usually measured with sundials. That said, city government and public schools are two employment venues that will be tough to line with minority hires.
There are positions at City Hall that are transitional, meaning that whomever is mayor may fill those slots to his or her liking. The other positions are "city jobs," and there isn’t a lot of turnover within those ranks. I don’t know how many employees at City Hall are in view when someone like Singleton walks through the doors, but my guess is only a few. And those people are probably entrenched in their jobs and have been for years. Few are going anywhere anytime soon. To be honest, I wouldn’t know where to get an application for a city job, nor would I know what jobs to apply for. I assume you could go to City Hall and ask, but I wouldn’t know for sure.
And teaching? Or being a principal? So many of our young and bright minds continue to take the high road to well-paying and creatively satisfying tech jobs that both define them and the future of the country they live within.
Those who feel the "calling" to educate get continually blindsided by state mandates and must deal with layers of oppression that leave the teacher feeling tied to the tracks as the train steams closer. Many school systems these days are at wit’s end trying to fill jobs with capable young personnel.
Instead of "evaluating" our professionals, we should be on our knees and be thankful they wake up every day and show up. Do you think veteran teachers are encouraging younger men and woman, minority or otherwise, to embrace that career choice? Don’t hold your breath.
I realize that’s not Singleton’s problem. But there needs to be an understanding about what the school district’s hurdles actually are. Hiring minorities is one of them, but one of many.
If qualified minority teaching candidates have been refused locally, I’d be surprised. I think our school department is too savvy to be that stupid. I don’t know that the pool of talent is that deep, and I’m not sure how exactly you recruit good candidates to our fair city.
Singleton and the NAACP must remember that it’s important first and foremost to hire the "right" person. But the city has to be aware that its resume and hiring practices will now be under great scrutiny. I don’t think this is an easy road for either party, but my hope is that things improve to everyone’s minimal satisfaction.
And let’s not forget a rising Hispanic population in the city and an Asian presence that is beginning to take hold. Both of these communities may soon be asking the same questions that Singleton has put forth. When they walk into City Hall will they see anyone "who looks like me?"
I don’t know, will they?
Brian Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.