'We need to open our eyes' to racial inequities, Ridgefield group says

RIDGEFIELD — As the sun set on Ballard Park, the melody of “Amazing Grace” permeated a tangible silence. Approximately 45 people followed Ridgefield Chorale Artistic Director Daniela Sikora as she sang the familiar hymn, which was part of a twilight vigil last week marking the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

The evening was organized by Ridgefield Allies, a community organization founded last spring following the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbrey and others at the hands of police. At the vigil, board members recited the names of more than 20 people who died in the same manner.

In 2020, Allies committed to taking local steps in the fight for racial justice. Its goal is to highlight what residents can do to educate, inspire and motivate themselves and one another to take action against racism.

Following its inception, the organization sponsored a series of educational events and initiatives related to advocating for racial justice.

“Despite the awareness and constant media attention in the aftermath of last summer, little has changed and (so) much more needs to be done,” Allies’ Executive Director Alex Harris said. “It was important to remind the community to become more vigilant and more active so that we can make the progress we hope to see.”

Some would argue that the conviction of Derek Chuavin — the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes preceding his death — was a point of progress, but board member Mark Robinson believes the verdict encourages the “bad apple” narrative.

“There are systemic problems with law enforcement that finding an individual guilty does nothing to address,” he said. “If we become too satisfied and too complacent … we run the risk of overlooking the greater systemic issues.”

The organization has shared its message with First Selectman Rudy Marconi and Superintendent Susie Da Silva to ask how the town and the schools can be more effectively engaged in addressing racism. And while “substantive change” has yet to be seen, Robinson said, having those introspective conversations is a start.

“The George Floyd occurrence really did hit home for many people who may have been willing to sit back,” Marconi said. “The change that's being asked for (is) focused on police departments, mostly in the larger city environments, but there's no question I feel comfortable with our police department.”

While acknowledging the predominantly white makeup of the department, Maroni said, “There’s no doubt we need more diversity … but education is critical, too.”

The organization has prepared a slate of new initiatives to reengage community members in its advocacy efforts. On its website, visitors can find “Hidden History” entries detailing the individuals, institutions, inventions and injustices the group says were omitted from the history books.

Allies will also partner with The Ridgefield Playhouse this year to co-host a Diversity Film Festival, and offer programming to commemorate Juneteenth, promote creators of color and continue community outreach.

The purpose, Harris explained, is to make the centuries of “persistent injustices” against people of color visible and work to alleviate those boundaries.

“Diversity is important not just for the kids who are diverse, but also for those of us who don't experience that,” board member Kristy Jefferson said. “We need to open our eyes to what that is like and put ourselves in those shoes.”

Those interested in volunteering or working with the organization can visit ridgefieldallies.org.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com