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Racial Shock at Hampshire Halloween; Casino Firm Makes Pitch in Upper Valley; Dobelle Sues. Should Anyone Be Surprised?; Vacant Buildings: Springfield Takes Control; Love Among the Weeds; and more

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Racial Shock at Hampshire Halloween

 

On the homepage of its website, the Valley band Shokazoba highlights a quote from Bluebird Reviews describing it as “an Afrobeat ensemble that blends jazz and old school funk, with a West African beat that sets the foundation for a great community vibe.”

That foundation proved very shaky, however, when the band’s performance at Hampshire College’s annual Halloween party on October 25 was canceled amidst cries of racism—both from a group of students at Hampshire and from the predominantly white band as well.

One of several musical acts hired by Hampshire’s event-planning Hype Committee to play the Halloween party, Shokazoba’s performance was canceled after a group of students voiced concerns about the musicians in the Afrobeat band being mostly white. The annual event is funded by student fees.

“We have always been a group that celebrates diversity. However, the problem was that we apparently have too many white members,” Shokazoba said in an email to the Advocate. “Then there was a frighteningly ignorant chain of comments on the Hampshire Hype page defaming our character after members of our group attempted to defend themselves.”

The Hampshire administration, however, says that the band’s performance was not canceled due to the racial makeup of its musicians, but rather because of the remarks that were made after the students questioned Shokazoba’s inclusion on the bill.

“On an online event site, some members of our student community questioned the selection of ... a predominantly white Afrobeat band and [expressed] concerns about cultural appropriation and the need to respect marginalized cultures,” reads a statement from Hampshire’s Office of Communications. “The decision by student planners not to have the band perform was not based on the band’s racial identity. It was based on the intensity and tone that arose on the event’s planning site on social media, including comments from off campus that became increasingly aggressive, moving from responses to individual student voices to rude, and at times unsettling, remarks.”

Efforts were made by the college to delete those comments. But the group of Hampshire students said the administration went too far in its censorship of the online communication, eliminating the positive aspects of the conversation as well as the negative. In a letter to faculty and staff, the group of Hampshire students expressed concerns both with the school’s “silencing” of the potentially productive dialogue and the administration’s lack of vocal leadership on the issue of racism, especially as it relates to student safety.

“Cultural appropriation is a major aspect of what makes Hampshire College such a hostile and inhospitable place for students of color,” the letter reads. “Students of the college should not be responsible for mediating these issues. Students pay tuition to attend a school that is a safe environment.”

In an email sent to the Advocate, the group of Hampshire students note that, even though Shokazoba issued an apology for its objecting to “reverse racism,” the “harassment of members of [their] community and [their] community as a whole by complete strangers” has not stopped, and “members of [their] community are still being targeted.”

“This … is a private campus that is set up as a safe space for marginalized individuals,” their email says, “and our politics and actions both vehemently reflect these standards.”

Shokazoba issued its apology on October 27 on its Facebook page.

“Censorship of music is an inherently problematic course of action,” the post reads. “However, we would like to formally apologize to anyone we may have inadvertently offended from the misuse of certain nomenclature ... We’ve learned a lot through our recent experience about privilege and racial theory. Thanks so much to everyone who has helped us to more clearly understand what we have been through, and what so many people go through on a daily basis. We hope as a band to continue to learn and be more sensitive to such important issues facing so many people in our communities and elsewhere. Let’s continue the dialogue without censorship, and hopefully we can all enjoy the music together.”

Though barred from performing at the Halloween party, Shokazoba was still paid.•

 

Dobelle Sues. Should Anyone Be Surprised?

Westfield State University president Evan Dobelle has made good a threat he issued just after being put on leave without pay on October 16: he has filed suit against Westfield State trustees Kevin R. Queenin, John F. Flynn III and Elizabeth Scheibel, formerly the district attorney for Hampshire and Franklin counties; James B. Cox, the attorney for the Westfield State board of trustees, and Cox’s firm, Rudin and Rudman; state higher education commissioner Richard Freeland; and O’Connor and Drew, the accounting firm that issued a report critical of Dobelle’s use of a university credit card for travel and personal expenses [“Westfield State Spending Spree,” September 17, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com].

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield, charges the defendants with defamation, breach of contract and civil rights violations, among other things. Larded with colorful language, it charges Freeland—who froze $2 million in state funds for a new science center at WSU until the issue of Dobelle’s spending was settled—with “browbeating” Dobelle and creating a “media inferno.” It accuses Flynn and Freeland of using allegations of financial misbehavior on Dobelle’s part in a “guerrilla war” that smeared Dobelle’s reputation. Flynn and Freeland have denied that.

Dobelle has admitted to “administrative errors,” but has said he voluntarily paid back any funds that were not used according to university rules.

Litigation, or the threat of it, is a weapon Dobelle has used before. In 2004, he was fired from his post as president of the University of Hawaii because of alleged misuse of university funds, and struck back by vowing to sue. In the face of the threat, the University of Hawaii rescinded the firing, and the issue was resolved with a settlement followed by Dobelle’s resignation. He walked away with $1.6 million in cash, a state pension for life, and a fully paid $2 million life insurance policy, all courtesy of the university.

And the Westfield State trustees were aware of that when they invited him to step into the president’s seat. The Boston Globe reported, “Westfield State University trustees knew about Evan Dobelle’s spectacular flame-out as president of the University of Hawaii on the day they hired him in December, 2007. They even hosted a campus meeting where 100 people discussed whether Westfield should hire someone who had been fired from another school amid charges of reckless spending and broken promises.”•

 


Vacant Buildings: Springfield Takes Control

Springfield is moving ahead with plans to hire four full-time staff members, as well as one part-time worker, to oversee the registration, inspection, maintenance and monitoring of vacant, abandoned and foreclosed buildings across the city.

According to the Springfield Republican, these workers will include “a program manager to administer the program under the Housing Office; a code enforcement inspector to conduct vacant house inspections; an administrative employee for record-keeping and related duties; and an associate city solicitor for legal work.”

The Springfield City Council recently voted to approve the expenditure of $215,000 to pay these prospective government workers and purchase supplies to aid them in their efforts.

The city will ultimately be reimbursed for this use of funds. Under the Property Registration Ordinance, which these workers will be hired to implement, owners of vacant or foreclosed properties will be required to file a $10,000 bond to register their properties with the city. After the offending property has been successfully inspected and brought back up to standard, the city will retain a portion of this bond to pay for expenses incurred in the process.

If these owners do not register their properties with the city, they will be levied a fine of $300 per week until they do so.

Mayor Domenic Sarno stated that this program is “a significant tool” for the city to use to hold absentee or irresponsible owners and institutions responsible for “the distress that has been wrought throughout the city.”

The Property Registration Ordinance was initially passed in 2011. However, a group of banks that own properties in Springfield sued the city, claiming that the ordinance violated of the U.S. Constitution and state law. In 2012, their suit was denied in federal court, and a subsequent appeal in the U.S. First Court of Appeals in Boston also failed.•

 


Love Among the Weeds

Just Roots, the organization that currently runs the Greenfield Community Farm, describes its mission as working to “[increase] access to healthy, local food by connecting people, land, resources and know-how.” But, under the radar, it’s recently found another calling: playing matchmaker.

As part of the organization’s series of volunteer initiatives, this fall it offered a program called “weed dating.” As the name suggests, it’s a twist on the well-worn concept of speed dating, in which people have quick, prompted conversations that allow them to skip some traditional social niceties and jump straight to trying to connect with someone.

But there are pitfalls in traditional speed dating—the cliches in movies, TV shows and the like are evidence enough. In an unfamiliar, choreographed environment, people get nervous, tongue-tied, overly worried about the thoughts of their prospective romantic interests.

“Weed dating” provides a solution. It has participants weed (or remove rocks) in pairs for a short period of time, then move on down the row and do the same with another partner. Dressy clothes are replaced with comfortable ones. Conversations take place while people are kneeling in the dirt, instead of across a table.

“It’s good to be busy when you’re meeting new people,” Greenfield Community Farm board member Shelly Beck told The Recorder.

The concept seems to be finding an audience. The first “weed dating” event on the Greenfield Community Farm was planned as a one-off, an attempt to whip up some volunteer support. But, by popular demand, another was held on October 27th. Other “weed dating” events have been held in several states, including Vermont, where weed dating reportedly got its start, Idaho, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio.

The turnout in Greenfield was not very large, but the results were satisfying to the organizers, according to Andy Grant, coordinator of outreach and promotion for Just Roots, the community nonprofit group that runs the farm. “We had five men and five women, and people seemed to enjoy themselves,” Grant told the Advocate. “It was a blustery afternoon, but there seemed to be warm conversation.”

Unlike speed dating, where the odds of meeting someone you have something in common with may be dauntingly low, weed dating starts participants out with a shared purpose and some common interests. “These are people who enjoy being outdoors and working on a farm for a good cause,” Grant pointed out. “It also is a fun way to get work done. They were thorough. We cleared a quarter of an acre for cultivation next season. I think it will be a regular feature.”• —BL

 

 

Casino Firm Makes Pitch in Upper Valley

 

MGM, the company that’s pulling out all the stops to try to build a casino in Springfield, has been courting interests in the northern reaches of the Upper Valley. MGM representatives recently met with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce to talk about how the company wants local farmers as food suppliers, and to tout the number of construction jobs a casino would bring the region. Reportedly, MGM has also spoken to Yankee Candle of Deerfield about cooperation on the retail side.

Michael Mathis, MGM’s Vice President of Global Gaming Development, even went so far as to say, “We’d like to bring customers out here for day trips.”

It’s all aroused the interest of Greenfield mayor Bill Martin, who sees Greenfield and nearby towns as “resource communities” that could provide food and workers for a Springfield casino, according to Recorder columnist Chris Collins. Collins reported that Martin wants to get together with Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and work up a proposal MGM officials could present to the state gaming commission as they approach the next round of license applications.• —SK

 

 

Blue State, Red Voting Laws

North Carolina raised the ire of people in so-called blue states this summer when it tightened its voting laws, demanding government-issued voter ID (student ID wouldn’t do anymore); shrinking its early voting window from 17 days to 10; doing away with same-day voter registration during the early voting period; and eliminating pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds (pre-registration makes it easier for them to vote at age 18).

But it turns out that, except for the voter ID rule—not that the importance of that rule deserves to be minimized—Massachusetts has voter laws that are hardly more progressive than North Carolina’s. As Pam Wilmot of Common Cause says, “We’ve never even had the pre-registration, early voting, or Election Day registration laws that North Carolina rolled back.”

According to Common Cause and the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, Massachusetts’ election laws need improvement. The Bay State, they say, is behind the times: 32 states and the District of Columbia now have some form of early voting, and one out of three Americans votes before election day.

H.3647, a bill that was released by the Joint Committee on Election Laws on September 30, would enable online voter registration and early voting during “business hours” beginning 11 days before an election. But supporters of voting law reform say it needs to include more measures, such as Election Day registration; pre-registration for people younger than eighteen; post-election audits; and “robust” early voting, meaning early voting with some evening and weekend hours so people can vote without taking time off work.• —SK

 

South Hadley’s Odyssey Bookshop Turns 50

 

In a Valley stuffed full of writers, readers, and lovers of homegrown businesses, South Hadley’s Odyssey Bookshop is a longstanding intersection of local and literary. A half-century ago, Romeo Grenier opened the doors to his new business. He’d been running a pharmacy, but the number of books kept growing until that year, when the business became all about books. Romeo’s daughter Joan Grenier now owns the Odyssey.

When the Odyssey suffered two fires in the 1980s, Mount Holyoke College and members of the community helped the business rebuild. Fifty years after its founding, the shop is a major literary crossroads, boasting an enormous roster of readings and events. The literary happenings go into overdrive Nov. 8-10, when the bookshop celebrates its five decades with a packed schedule.

You can get in on giveaways, discounts, and entertainment (including live music) for kids and adults. The schedule winds up Sunday afternoon with a high tea in honor of Romeo Grenier.•

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