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,
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.