One of the speakers at Monday’s Somerset City Council was a well-known voice within the local community: David Townsend.
While several speakers had come forward to discuss the pros and cons of the city’s plan to lease the former Cundiff Square property to the board of the proposed University of Somerset, Townsend’s aim was much more personal to him.
Townsend decided to speak off the cuff about race relations within the city and the frustrations some in the Black community feel about not being heard.
He started by saying he was disappointed about how no one had reached out to him after submitting several letters to the editor, published in the Commonwealth Journal.
“Nobody’s reached out and said, ‘Mr. Townsend, why do you feel this way?” he said at the meeting.
Indeed, even in one of his letters, published on April 2, Townsend wrote about the lack of response.
He wrote, “… [W]hile my pieces have had a good response from those outside our community, there has been virtually NO response from citizens within our community, with the exception of supporters. To be honest, the response of the local community is disappointing. Avoidance and ignorance will not make the social injustices that plague our community just disappear.”
It is those social injustices that Townsend says continues to be a part of the Somerset community that motivated him to speak at the council meeting, he said.
Up until Townsend’s comments, the main discussion during the Citizens Comments portion of the meeting centered around the University of Somerset.
One resident, Brenda Pryor, spoke out in favor of the university, saying that such an entity would help support the local community, keeping young people in this area for their education.
She ended her comments by saying, “I wholeheartedly encourage that we think about bringing other people here as well as keeping Somerset the way that it is.”
After hearing her comments, Townsend said he felt motivated to speak, saying Tuesday that he felt like her comments may have given the perception that “everything is fine” within the community in terms of diversity.
“Everything is not fine,” Townsend said.
“I believe that sometimes we can paint a picture of a snapshot that gives us a not-so-accurate picture of the whole,” he said.
During the meeting, Townsend said he spoke up because he felt he was more “empowered” than some to be able to talk.
“I’ve been hearing from people in the Black community … and they’re saying ‘Mr. Townsend, don’t stop, because you’re saying things we can’t say. You’re saying things we’re scared to say for fear of losing our jobs.’”
On Tuesday, Townsend that he spoke with Pryor after the meeting, and he said her take was that he was not necessarily more “empowered,” but was more “emboldened” to speak publicly.
“I feel comfortable speaking in public,” he said. “I’m going to voice my opinion because I’m outspoken.”
He added that it was because of who he is in the community and how many connections he has made while living here.
For one example, Townsend brought up an incident at the meeting about an interaction between him and local law enforcement.
“They didn’t know who I was. I said ‘just call chief (Somerset Police Chief William Hunt). I’m not going to be quiet because you tell me to shut up. Call the chief.’ That’s only happened once or twice. But we as black people, as minorities, we have to handle law enforcement differently.”
On Tuesday, Townsend said the statement was made “about one incident that happened at a local business, but it didn’t amount to anything.”
His words were to prove a point that while he is well connected to the area, out of town Black people may not feel as confident.
“I know people who’s not from this area, who don’t know as many people, may not be as comfortable.”
Chief Hunt was asked Tuesday about the incident with police that Townsend cited in his comments, saying that the council meeting was the first time he had heard about the issue, and that it wasn’t brought up when the two of them spoke after the meeting.
“I didn’t put a lot into that statement, because I didn’t feel it was very significant ... had it been significant he would have made a complaint to one of our supervisors and/or called me directly.”
When asked if he felt like the voices of the Black Community are being heard, Hunt said, “I believe there is always room to improve as human beings, to be better and try to be the best versions of ourselves, regardless of whether it’s in diversity or it’s being a better human being. None of us are perfect and we all have room to improve, no matter in what vantage point we’re looking at ourselves. I do think that Somerset in the past few years has made some of the greatest strides in diversity I’ve ever seen in my 25 years in this city.”
Some of those strides, Hunt pointed out, come in the makeup of the people on the SPD’s Citizens Advisory Committee. Over the past year and a half, the minority membership of the board has increased from 6% to 25%.
All of the board’s members have a chance to bring issues within the community to the police department, he said. “We’ve continued to use them as voices of our community. That’s part of their position, as representatives of our community to be a liaison to the police department to come to us with issues in the community to help bring them to our attention.”
The Citizens Comments time of Somerset Council meetings is also a way to shine a light on problems within the community, Mayor Alan Keck said.
“I’ll always acknowledge there’s room to grow and improve,” Keck said about communicating about racial concerns. “I care about comments about Somerset and those who live in this community. We don’t always have to agree for me to be an active engaged listener, and while I feel like we’re doing that that doesn’t suggest we can’t do more.”
He continued, “We’re listening more than we ever have.”
Also as part of Townsend’s comments, and addressing the idea brought up by Pryor that a university would help to keep students here, Townsend brought up the experience of his own children, of whom he said, “My son, who played basketball with some of your kids and grew up in football, won’t even come back here. His best friend is Chief Hunt’s son. He’s probably the only person in Somerset who’ll speak to him anymore. My daughter doesn't want to come back here. They were raised here, and they don’t want to come back, because the city doesn’t necessarily embrace Black people. Now, y’all say you do, but you don’t understand where you come from.”
On Tuesday, Townsend said he wanted to clarify that his son has many friends from Somerset, not just Chief Hunt’s son.
Still his point remains that many young people, white and Black both, don’t stay in this area.
“We’re losing good talent. I know white kids that don’t come back here. Talented ones. Teachers in Atlanta, teachers in Nashville, that won’t come back here because we are not as inclusive as we want to be, so I’m disappointed.”
Then, there are the ones who want to leave, but can’t because of circumstance, he pointed out. And part of that is due to the way Black people are seen within the community, he said.
“I know people who I cherished at Somerset High School, where I worked at for several years, that won’t even speak to me. Unfriended me on Facebook, because I say ‘Black Lives Matter.’ … I served 25 years in the military, and I got people in this community right now that will unfriend me, don’t follow me and will contradict things I say. They don’t want to hear my side of why [Colin] Kaepernick kneels because …. some other military guy says it’s disrespectful.”