In Brentwood, newsletter opinion on racism in U.S. is dividing residents

  • Resident Alina Arida speaks during a community meeting last month. Todd Bookman / NHPR

NH Public Radio
Published: 5/5/2021 5:19:22 PM

The Brentwood Newsletter was founded in 1977 to fix a problem: people in town weren’t getting along.

“Town meetings were kind of well known for being a bit of shouting affairs,” remembers Linda Rousseau.

After securing grant money from the New Hampshire Humanities council, Rousseau and some residents launched the newsletter with the aim of better informing the community about happenings in town, and, hopefully, bring residents together.

The newsletter, though, had a rough start.

“It was done on a bad typewriter, where the letters were half missing,” says Rousseau. “It was a mess.”

But by issue number three, Rousseau took over as typist, and for the next four decades, she served as editor of the monthly publication, before retiring a few years ago. Under Rousseau’s tenure, the newsletter was well-regarded, and a must-read for many residents.

In the 1980s, residents voted to fund the Brentwood Newsletter with town money, though it remains technically an independent publication. Last year, it received $10,200 in public funding, and it carries the town seal. A copy is mailed to every residence in town.

“I read it cover to cover,” says Rebecca Dunham, one of the volunteers who gather each month to fold and label each edition by hand.

The newsletter’s content is generally wholesome stuff, with a focus on local news and events.

“There’s always a front page story, and it’s usually of local interest, whether it’s the Girl Scouts cookie thing, or the sportsmen of Brentwood donating deer meat, venison, to food projects,” says Dunham.

But in March, newsletter readers were greeted with something else on Page 7: an opinion piece, entitled Racism: From a White Man’s Perspective, submitted by Richard Gagnon, a town resident. In the 1,300 word opinion piece, which the Brentwood Newsletter labeled an editorial, Gagnon rejects the idea of systemic racism, criticizes the Black Lives Matter movement, and opposes the tearing down of a statue in Boston.

The piece angered some residents, who called it racist and hurtful; some questioned why it would be published in a town-funded newsletter. The outcry led to a meeting last month that brought more than 100 residents into a crammed community center to debate the newsletter’s decision to publish the piece.

For two hours, residents spoke for and against the article, and the newsletter’s decision to publish it. Gagnon was at the meeting too.

“I am not a racist, I am not a white supremacist. I am not a vile person,” he told his neighbors.

But for Dr. Jo Ann Beltre, the newsletter’s decision to publish the article gave the appearance of Brentwood endorsing a racist perspective. Beltre is white; her husband Bill Beltre identifies as Black Hispanic. She says they’re one of just a handful of mixed race and minority households in town.

“I worried a lot about how it would affect my children, who obviously are biracial,” Beltre says. “I had my daughter read it, and we had conversations about it. It was pretty upsetting to all of us.”

Beltre says her husband didn’t feel comfortable attending the community meeting to speak in opposition to the article.

“I think he is very resigned to not speaking up, which is common, right? If you are a person of color and you speak up, you get into trouble,” she says. “It’s a lot easier for me, as a white person, to speak up for people of color, for the cause, just by virtue of the color of my skin.”

From Beltre’s perspective, that’s all the evidence you need to prove that systemic racism exists.

But many in town say they don’t believe the article was racist, and was simply an expression of one man’s perspective.

The newsletter, according to Rebecca Dunham, has a long history of publishing opinion pieces, including letters to the editor about gun ownership, nuclear disarmament, and acid rain.

“I don’t always agree with what’s in there, definitely, but I think there is a right to publish it,” Dunham says.

Following the article’s publication, the Board of Selectmen voted to temporarily halt funding of the newsletter. The Board is now considering a provision that would curtail the newsletter’s opinion section, or require equal space for counter-viewpoints in each issue. (Currently, there is no contract or terms attached to the public funding.) Dunham argues that any changes to the newsletter would be a mistake.

“It kind of hurts me that people want to shut down opinions. I mean this town ... was founded by people who risked their property and their lives for the right for free speech and liberty, and now we are very concerned that we don’t want people to express their opinions?”

But for some in town, the published opinions lean only in one direction.

“It’s free speech, but it seems like it is only the speech they want to hear,” says Susan Mitchell, a Brentwood resident of 24 years.

After Linda Rousseau retired, there were a series of editors who temporarily stepped in before Robin Wrighton, a local graphic designer, took over as volunteer editor. Mitchell says since Wrighton arrived, the overall tone of the newsletter has changed, with more opinion pieces and a decidedly conservative slant.

Mitchell says people in town with progressive viewpoints have submitted letters to the editor, but that the newsletter isn’t always publishing them. (Wrighton didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Still, nothing in the previous issues generated the firestorm that the article about racism has.

“I think it is a great little town. I feel very sad about what’s happened in the last couple of years,” says Mitchell. “It seems like it’s sort of going the way of the’s them and us.”

The Brentwood Newsletter was founded to bring the community together, but lately, it’s been one more thing tearing the town apart.

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