Friday, September 24, 2021

The Cambridge aftermath: Tough to rebuild trust

By Mark Frost, Chronicle Editor

As it stands now, the Indian mascot has been abolished at Cambridge Central School. That happened by a 3-2 vote at a special board meeting June 17.

On July 1, a new school board takes office. It includes four of the prior five members. The only change is that Jessica Roosevelt — who voted to eliminate the Indians and didn’t run for re-election — will be succeeded by David Shay Price — who won election overwhelmingly, and campaigned to keep the Indians.

Will the decision be reversed now that the 3-2 majority tilts the other way? I have no idea. Nor am I wading into the Indian-or-no-Indian debate itself.

No, my reason for looking Cambridge’s way one more time is that I think something wrong and outrageous happened on June 17. The school board majority, led by board president Neil Gifford, reneged on a deal that all five members agreed to at its regular meeting on June 10. (Both meetings were conducted via Internet; we watched.)

On June 10, Mr. Gifford introduced a resolution to eliminate both the name Indians and the imagery.

Member Jessica Roosevelt seconded it.

Newly elected member Dillon Honyoust — who terms himself Indian; his heritage is Oneida and Onondaga — urged a compromise that would keep the name Indians.

Member Jessica Ziehm joined him.

The deciding vote, then, belonged to Caleb Breault. It was a thunderclap when he said “if this vote was put to me right this second, I still don’t know how I’d vote.”

Without his vote, Mr. Gifford’s resolution would fail.

Long, intense discussion followed. Finally, amazingly, they hammered out a compromise that everybody agreed to. They would keep the name Indians and rethink the visual representation that went with it.

The school’s attorney Jeff Honeywell was part of the June 10 meeting. He told the school board: “I’ll be honest with you, folks, a 5-0 is way better than whatever it might have been.”

He said, “Folks, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve been watching boards of education for almost 35 years. That was a darn good conversation. You listened to each other. And it was a darn good conversation. So congratulations.”

The attorney Mr. Honeywell said: “Trust me, folks, I — because of a FOIL request — got to read hundreds and hundreds of emails from the community. So I’m not just speaking from afar here, I’ve read all of them. The sad part you’ve all alluded to it is the division this has created. And Cambridge is a wonderful community, a wonderful school district. And that’s quite frankly, very sad. So I think, Neil, to your point, some recognition that the community’s just not ready for a transition or change.”

Mr. Gifford said, “The only part of that that I would want to clarify at the beginning we’re committing to the keeping the name but considering new imagery for lack of a better word. I don’t even know if you want to use the word mascot.”

Jessica Roosevelt said: “I am comfortable in pursuing something like this. Yes, I think it satisfies my need to move forward. And it recognizes that not everyone is ready to move forward. But it does symbolize our intent to do so. And I would be in favor of a compromise resolution such as this.”

Trying to nail down the language, Mr. Honeywell offered: “It’s a ‘sense of the board’ resolution…that this board is inclined to keep the mascot of Indians, but engage in a review process of the imagery associated with exploring alternatives…I also heard a sense of the board that they believe, kind of almost separate and apart from the whole thing, is tasking the superintendent with developing some improved, new — whatever word we want to use — curriculum associated with Native Americans.”

Jessica Zeihm said: “I’m a little nervous about voting on this without seeing it in writing.”

Mr. Honeywell: “I can give you another option, you can have a special meeting next week.”

That special meeting turned out to be fatal to the consensus arrived at on June 10.

The special meeting took place on June 17. This time the attorney Mr. Honeywell was not part of it.

Evidently, in the week between the meetings, out of view, the language of the resolution was batted back and forth. Now came some parliamentary gymnastics.

Mr. Gifford, Ms. Roosevelt and, now, Mr. Breault voted against the rewritten compromise, killing it, 3-2.

Mr. Gifford said that meant his original resolution abolishing the Indians in both word and image was now live again. The same trio approved it, 3-2.

If the majority had come out and said, “Look, we’re reneging on the deal we made last week because it’s more important to rid the school of this racist practice,” okay, that’s direct. But what Mr. Gifford in particular did was act as if the deal had never been struck in the first place. I think in modern parlance that’s called “gaslighting.”

The attorney Mr. Honeywell had told the board on June 10: “You may not be far away from New York State taking this out of your hands, by the way.”

Change can be imposed from the top-down, but community builds bottom-up, person by person, on shared trust and respect. Much harder now in Cambridge.

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