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‘I am not beholden to Amherst Forward because they endorse me’

This guest post was written by Shalini Bahl-Milne, a candidate for Amherst’s Town Council from District 5. It was written in response to a voter who questioned her endorsement by Amherst Forward.

Thanks for this thoughtful note and your commitment to create an inclusive community. If you’ll permit me, I want to start by sharing my experience of being an immigrant mother who came to the US with a 7-year-old son. This was my first experience of being away from my close-knit family in a foreign culture, raising my son while pursuing my PhD. Between taking care of him and my own studies, I had little time to go out and make friends. I had no idea how important it was for me to participate in my son’s school and I didn’t know of the different opportunities to engage in community.

I lived for four years in North Amherst without knowing my neighbors and they didn’t know me. After graduating I moved to Utah where I got my first job as a tenure track faculty member at the business school in Salt Lake City. There again, between my high-pressure work and raising a child as a single mom, I had no time to learn and be integrated in the local culture and activities. I was starting to create and belong to a community when I started teaching meditation, but before long I got married and moved back to Amherst.

In Amherst I had to recreate my career as I didn’t get a full-time job as an academic. The truth is I didn’t know how to fit in the community, which was comprised mostly of parents who had known each other since their children were very young. I wasn’t a citizen until 3 years ago, so I didn’t think my voice even mattered. And it’s only after becoming a citizen that I started to learn about the issues so I could vote in an informed manner. That opened up a world of opportunities that I didn’t even know existed.

Moving forward to this election, when friends who know my work in mindfulness and research suggested that I run from my district, my first reaction was no, I don’t have any experience! It was then that few friends that I had made through volunteering — Ginny Hamilton and Johanna Neumann — started encouraging me to run, convinced that the town would benefit from a greater diversity of voices in our government. They suggested that my skills would be helpful in bridging the divide the town is experiencing, and in making thoughtful decisions.

I sat with this idea for a couple of weeks and eventually decided to run, because I believe I do have skills and experience that can make a difference in the new council. These friends introduced me to Irv Rhodes and Farah Ameen, who are also people of color, and now part of my campaign team. Irv helped give me a deeper history of the issues our town is facing, which I built on in conducting more research and learning about successful strategies employed by other college towns facing similar issues. Irv also introduced me to people deeply entrenched in this community, like you. Maybe most important, I started knocking on doors to understand people’s issues and concerns and speaking to other community and town office members.

Meanwhile, all the candidates were getting several surveys and I answered as many as I could. When Amherst Forward decided to endorse me, I asked them what it means to be endorsed. I was clear how I would think and make decisions as a Town Councilor — listen to residents’ concerns, do my independent research, get expert consultations, work collaboratively with my colleagues to help committees make the best decisions for all of Amherst. I am not beholden to Amherst Forward because they endorse me. Rather, they are endorsing me because I am an independent thinker and will listen to all perspectives, bring curiosity, ask tough questions, do my homework, and act in a way that acknowledges the long-term consequences on all stakeholders.

I also want to be clear that this endorsement doesn’t mean I “joined the PAC.” I didn’t join a PAC. I am endorsed by one. When you voted for me in the primary, I was endorsed by this group. The group independently decided to form a PAC and I disagreed with that direction, but it wasn’t my place to weigh in.

Amherst Forward is sharing info about me along with other people they are endorsing to people beyond my small network. They’ve helped me understand how to be transparent about campaign funds, and connected me with local people who are knowledgeable about complex issues such as zoning and schools.

As I hope I’ve made clear, they made it possible for me to run by connecting me with people who are my team, teaching me how to run a transparent campaign, and work collaboratively. They made it possible for an immigrant, woman of color who didn’t have confidence in herself nor her network, to take this step. That is equity — empowering people to contribute at their highest levels. Without equity, which creates equal opportunities for all to participate, we cannot hope for a diverse and inclusive Town Council or Amherst.

I am proud of the campaign I have run. I have created several events for all District 5 candidates and at-large candidates and done my best to run a campaign that adheres to my values of mindfulness and compassion that I am committed to living my life by.

I know people in Amherst are coming with the right intentions. But just like any other human being, they cannot know others’ experiences without asking questions and listening without letting the dominant narratives hijack real understanding. I am disheartened that so many people who claim to want a diversified council were so quick to judge this endorsement that they closed down any opportunity for further exploration and discussion. Isn’t that what we want — the ability to engage even when we disagree?

I reached out to you — and many others — to address your questions and concerns. Thank you for taking the time to email us. I only wish it was an invite to ask more questions and hear my point of view before deciding what you already believe to be true. I also wish you would reach out to the other candidates like Paul, Mandi Jo, Alisa, Andy, Evan, Lynn, John, each of whom I have had the privilege to know mainly through Amherst Forward, and I have come to respect each of them greatly, just as I respect many of those who weren’t endorsed by Amherst Forward. And I respect you for being so clear about your concerns, and for sharing them.

In the interest of bridging differences and creating an inclusive council, I hope you would be willing to meet each of us, ask us the questions you have, and then decide who you are going to trust with building the foundation for all future Town Councils.

With an open mind and heart,

Shalini

P.S. I also wanted to share my first point of research on PACs before accepting this endorsement. My first question was: What would Bernie Sanders do? I looked at his approach with PACs, from which he has several endorsements, which doesn’t mean he will do what they tell him to do. I looked for progressive PACs and found many doing good things. And I note that other candidates are proudly proclaiming their endorsements from national PACs such as the Sierra Club.

Comments 18

  1. I am very glad you are running Shalini. When we met I was impressed with your intelligence and your commitment to our town. Amherst sorely needs some racial and ethnic diversity on the Council. You will bring that by virtue of your immigrant status and your perspective as a woman of color. You have my vote and my endorsement!

  2. Shalini will not be beholden to any one interest group. She will listen to all parties and make considered, collaborative decisions within the Council. We need her thoughtful leadership in Amherst

  3. Amherst is very fortunate that Shalini and her family chose to live in our town… and is willing to try and help us as we go forward with our new form of government. I support her and will vote for her for District 5 Town councilor. Our kids will be very lucky to have Shalini looking out for their interests.

  4. Thank you for speaking your truth with such honesty and grace, Shalini. Supporting unlikely candidates like you is one of the primary reasons I’ve helped start Amherst Forward. My hope is our network can also engage residents who similarly see themselves as unlikely participants in town decision making. I’m grateful to you for stepping forward and honored to call you my friend.

  5. Shalini, beautifully thought out and well said. As always, you bring your intelligence, your mindfulness, and your varied life experience to bear in the things you say and do. My only regret is that I am not in your district and cannot cast a vote for you. Your campaign and your engagement with your district has been a lovely thing to watch. My wish for this town is that more people, regardless of their views on how we move forward as a town, could participate in this type of thoughtful leadership. Thank you so much for running.

  6. Shalini will be fine on Town Council. But is the Town good enough to embrace Shalini and see her succeed? I will be glad when Amherst Forward stops being the all-purpose boogeyman that’s needed to mobilize one part of the electorate. The folks at Amherst Forward just don’t fill the bill as some kind of threat to the Town.

  7. I am not in Shalini’s district but I would be voting for her if I were. Her work in mindfulness makes her singularly… well, mindful, thoughtful, patient, and open. Combine those traits with her research expertise and you have a candidate who is ideally suited to delve into the complex issues, and communicate with and listen to the people in her district.

  8. Dear Shalini,

    Fortunately, I haven’t let dominant narratives hijack my real understanding. What I understand is that, because you answered several survey questions to the liking of Amherst for All – -now Amherst Forward – -you are receiving many benefits, such as introductions, advice for running your campaign, in-kind support, publicity and help with fund raising. Perhaps most importantly, the PAC is amplifying your message by putting you in touch with hundreds, if not thousands, of voters who cast ballots on one side only of the school issue and the charter campaign. A tremendous advantage.

    It is lovely to have friends who encourage you, but from a distance, it’s disconcerting that one of them just happens to be the Co-Chair of Amherst Forward. Hummm. It’s also confusing that, while you profess to be truly open-minded and respectful of other viewpoints, you cannot find it in yourself to support even one of the independent candidates, preferring only the other members of your slate.

    1. Dear Nick, thank you for creating the space for us to have these conversations. Especially in the absence of multiple forums and community-wide events, voters don’t have a chance to get to know us and ask us questions.

      Dear Christina, I so appreciate your willingness to engage in dialogue and share your concerns. I will do my best to address some of your questions.
      1. Regarding your statement, “because you answered several survey questions to the liking of Amherst for All – -now Amherst Forward,” I want to clarify that I don’t know what their process was for choosing who to endorse.

      2. The benefits I received from people who are now Amherst Forward include connecting me with Irv—who is my campaign manager and mentor—and with Farah, who helps me edit, and I am sure they helped spread the word informally before the preliminaries. They also provided training in reporting our fundraising and about issues such as schools and zoning. Amherst Forward volunteers are spreading the word about me and other candidates they are endorsing. They are NOT helping with fundraising and in-kind support other than spreading the word about us. I made all the recycled wood signs with my friend, a friend helped with my website, which I am now maintaining, I design and print my own materials using local businesses, and I have personally knocked on more than 400 doors and still counting.

      3. “It’s also confusing that, while you profess to be truly open-minded and respectful of other viewpoints, you cannot find it in yourself to support even one of the independent candidates, preferring only the other members of your slate.”
      I can see why it would be confusing that I only took the names of endorsed candidates in the letter. It was in response to the fact that person to whom I was writing had written that she was not going to vote for anyone being endorsed. My request to her was to meet me and all the other candidates being endorsed and then decide who she wants to vote for. I wasn’t suggesting that she vote for us but meet with us just as she was meeting with other candidates. I state there that I respect them just as I do many others not endorsed by Amherst Forward.

      Christina, I don’t know which District you live in but if you were following the events in District 5 and my page, you would see that I have been initiating events for all candidates in District 5 and all the at-large candidates. Before the preliminaries, I organized an event at Brookfield Farm as an opportunity to highlight this local CSA, invite families to informally meet with all the candidates and for the candidates to get to know each other. I initiated and coordinated a forum at Applewood for the seniors to meet with all the District 5 candidates and it was a real success. In this round I tried to co-create an event with District 5 and at-large candidates, inviting them to choose the date/time, venue, sponsors, and moderators. Two of the district candidates refused to participate. Eventually, the event was cancelled because people called up the Hitchcock Center and Kern saying the event was “partisan,” even though all the at-large candidates were attending along with two of us district candidates.

      Please let me know if you have other questions. Thank you for your time to engage in local politics.

  9. Dear Christina Platt,

    My God, how tone deaf you are to genuine thoughts and sentiments from a good person and neighbor.

    Please share with us YOUR “real understanding” of what Shalini said.

    Because for me, my real understanding from her writing is an honest woman spoke from the heart with common sense thoughts and with goodness and compassion for others in a very friendly manner. She was open and kind enough to share some of her life experiences, probably in the hopes, that they might inspire some others who maybe don’t feel like they have a right to speak their opinions or participate in our town’s government because they are new to much of this.

    Shalini is exactly the kind of role model I would choose for my own 11 year old daughter and I’ll bet a lot of other parents of children might feel the same way. In a time where the leaders of our country are hypocrites and selfish monsters abusing power and hurting people who have far less than they do, I find it refreshing to know there are people like Shalini out there who want to serve in government.

    I just saw “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” last week and I will say that I found in Shalini’s story, much of the same honest and decency that I saw on the screen in Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith”. Honesty and decency are so badly needed right now in our country and in our state and even in our town.

    So, Christina Platt, maybe read what Shalini wrote again and this time without your filter of cynicism and what some might even call prejudice. I won’t call it prejudice, myself… I just think it was ignorance. And ignorance can be forgiven.
    Best Wishes
    Brian Scully

  10. I am so grateful that Shalini is running for Town Council for District 5, and I can’t wait to vote for her. She will bring her sharp intelligence coupled with her open minded, open hearted approach, both of which will strengthen our new Council. Amherst Forward’s goal of encouraging and supporting new and diverse voices to run to represent our community is the reason that I am proud to be an Amherst Forward volunteer.

    1. I think you will enjoy it, Shalini. It’s Jimmy Stewart, Frank Capra and America at it’s best… all in 1939 in glorious black and white. It would be wonderful if more people went back and watched it to remind us what one person can do against great odds. 🙂

  11. I understand the concept of being endorsed by a person or group, and not pledging loyalty to them. To fill out a questionnaire by Sierra Club, and them declare you kosher, does not imply a quid pro quo, that you will betray your constituents out of loyalty to the endorser. But it does suggest that you are a trusted partner of that cause. That your thinking on their mission is reliable.

    And I don’t doubt that Amherst Forward has provided some very useful skills to non-politicians, teaching them how to campaign. And I know that people endorsed by them are well intentioned, intelligent, effective. But the main purpose of Amherst Forward is not education for campaigners; it is support of specific causes. It is a diverse group, and not everyone in it says things like (slight paraphrase) “anyone who voted against co-located schools is trying to hurt my children and lacks the character to be on the town council.” But several do.

    I’d like to see, more specifically, how candidates endorsed by Amherst Forward will intentionally, actively, tactically, remain free-thinking, independent, unaligned. How their first loyalty will be towards reaching across the aisle to others on the Town Council, and in the audience; and not towards taking any kind of marching orders from the PAC.

    As a person who is not afraid to state my case, I value neighborliness, transparency, fairness, independence, and fighting my own tendencies to be nearsighted and stiff necked (you have them too! get over yourself!)

    And again, I have respect for many people who have been endorsed by Amherst Forward. And I understand why a group of people who feel that what Amherst needs to get done would unite to MAKE IT HAPPEN!! But at a cost, in my opinion

    I invite candidates to go on record with their own pledge of how they will put the health of the Town Council and Amherst citizens ahead of any agenda.

    ps: I suggest – if you are a person who does think “anyone who voted against co-located schools is purposely hurting my children” ask yourself “is there any other conceivable explanation for their thinking?” — fyi, I voted Yes on that item, though I hate the plan. But until I voted yes, I was going to vote no, hoping a better plan would emerge. And in a prior post, I noted an article from the Greenfield Recorder from the 1970s, quoting a lone dissenter about building Wildwood and Fort River as open classrooms- he was pretty much ignored – in the name of “getting it done.”

    1. Hi Ira,

      I so appreciate your continuous engagement and efforts to reach out and take the time to ask clarifying questions.

      I can respond to your concern—I’d like to see, more specifically, how candidates endorsed by Amherst Forward will intentionally, actively, tactically, remain free-thinking, independent, unaligned. How their first loyalty will be towards reaching across the aisle to others on the Town Council, and in the audience; and not towards taking any kind of marching orders from the PAC—with an example of how I am running my campaign. Hopefully, these actions demonstrate how I will work as a Town Councilor better than what I say.

      I have made a concerted effort to reach out to all the District 5 candidates and at-large candidates to host community events that would give citizens a chance to meet with all of us and highlight our local businesses such as the Brookfield farm and the Hitchcock Center. In the last event at the Hitchcock Center, I emailed all the district candidates with an invitation to share their preferred times on a timely calendar, suggest sponsors and moderators, and how best to engage voters (even your responded to the survey I created on Facebook). After all these efforts, two candidates chose not to participate and “people” called up Hitchcock center and put pressure to pull out because it was a partisan event. Next, I got a space at the Kern Center and next day they pulled out for the same reason. Everyone was invited and two of us from district 5 (Paul and me) and 5 of the at-large candidates were attending but certain groups of people assumed this was partisan. No one contacted us to find out the facts. Why would all the candidates and voters not want to create opportunities for the residents to meet with all of us and ask us questions?

      Another example of reaching out—I invited all the candidates to celebrate together the preliminary results and only Aaron and Paul were willing to be together for this important event.

      I believe there is a lot of mistrust in the community. And we need to have town councilors who will continue to reach out with empathy and genuine interest to heal the divide. I have been reaching out from day 1 of my candidacy to the town meeting members and the people who voted for the charter, people who opposed the school and for the school, and to all the candidates running from District 5.

      I hope you will continue to ask these questions from all candidates and not only those endorsed by Amherst Forward.

  12. Thanks, Shalini

    Yes, I ask this of all candidates.

    But I guess that some candidates will not post to this blog, maybe feeling unsafe to do so, and/ or not wanting to participate on the PAC’s site.

  13. Ira: I take issue with your assertion that forums such as this are too intimidating somehow for any candidate to enter the fray. They all have chosen to run for public office. They have decided to become public figures. They should seize on forums like this blog to outline and defend their positions so that voters can be informed. You are doing the community a great service by stating your positions, and while I disagree with many of your conclusions, I think you set a good example for all. If candidates can’t stand the heat…well….

  14. The “A Better Amherst” blog is not “the PAC’s site” – this claim has been debunked enough times already… Let’s keep it real, folks.

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