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Confederate street signs in Shenandoah Subdivision where Stonewall Drive intersects General Forrest Avenue Tuesday June 23, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

New criticisms are emerging over the effort to consider changing Baton Rouge street names honoring Confederate generals, with the head of the local NAACP chapter calling the city-parish's take a "softball approach" to a significant problem.

A recent report from the special commission Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome appointed last year to study racial inequalities is even drawing opposition from within. One of the panel's members is taking issue with a portion of the 64-page document that states its more important to "change the hearts and minds" of the community rather than rename streets honoring individuals who glorified and supported slavery. 

Panel member Sarah Cortell Vandersypen, who wasn't part of the subcommittee that studied renaming streets and taking down monuments tied to the Confederacy, questions the reports final language. She served on the subcommittee for arts, culture and community nonprofits in Broome's Commission on Racial Equity and Inclusion.

Vandersypen also criticized the subcommittee tackling historic recognition and physical expressions for not seeking sufficient input from groups like Preserve Louisiana, and said it appears that addressing monuments and street names wasn't a priority for the mayor's office.

Leaders from other local organizations, like the NAACP, are expressing similar gripes, saying the commission should have gone further to address the issue if the goal is to, in fact, rid the community of such divisive symbols. 

"Outside of the historic preservation part, it's a solid report," said Eugene Collins, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "But that portion on street names just took a softball approach to achieving racial equity." 

The commission's recommendation to address streets names and monuments through education on racism and racial disparities, according to the report, was rooted in the pushback members said would arise to outright changes, given the governmental red tape associated with the process.

Changing the name of a street in East Baton Rouge Parish can only happen if a majority of the homeowners or property owners on a street petition city-parish government to do so. 

Broome appointed the commission last year, shortly after protests, locally and nationally, stirred by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

She charged its members with coming up with recommendations her office could use to "install the practice of racial equity and inclusion," according to her executive order. In addition to looking at street/building names and monuments, the commission focused on community and economic development, education, health and human services; arts culture and community-based nonprofits and government entities. 

Nearly 200 people applied for spots on the panel; 24 were chosen by Broome's office. 

Vandersypen, who works in the nonprofit arena, said appointments to the commission's various subcommittees appear to have been based on applicants' professional backgrounds and expertise. 

But when it came to the group that handled street names and monuments "No one had any particular expertise in this content area. That to me is what the problem is," she said. 

With her subcommittee, Vandersypen said representatives from the Mayor's Office often chimed in on their discussions, like telling members they had to be "more specific" with certain recommendations and herding various outside community stakeholders to them for discussions around their specific topics. 

"The Mayor's Office had a hand in all of this," she said. "Those reports aren't necessarily independent of what the Mayor's Office wanted to push. To me, it seems odd because there was also not a lot of cross work between work groups. Everything was siloed."

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According to the report, three of Broome's assistant chief administrative officers served as advisers to the commission, as well as the mayor's special assistant. 

Given the limited expertise in historic preservation the subcommittee tackling street names seemed to have, Vandersypen said the group might have benefited from insight from people like Maxine Crump, a Black former journalist who created an education series on racism, or officials from Preserve Louisiana. 

Preserve Louisiana is a local nonprofit that seeks to promote cultural awareness and economic growth through historic preservation.

Fairleigh Jackson, executive director of the organization, joins in the dissent over the commission's stance on renaming streets. Jackson, who served on Broome's transition team after she was first elected in 2016, called the "hearts and minds" approach to equity "Pollyanna-ish" and "dismissive." 

"If we can't tackle this we might as well hang it up," said Jackson, who is White. "What we're doing is looking at an actual establishment of white supremacy through street names, monuments and school/building names and acknowledging this has nothing to do with anything but intimidation and upholding systemic racism."

When approached about the initial criticisms the report garnered from Crump and a few of the black Metro Council members, Broome expressed understanding but also mentioned conversations she had had with black entrepreneurs whose ideas of equality included more access to city-parish contracts and business for economic growth.

Collins said given the small percentage black business owners make up of the city-parish's black population, they can't be the resounding voice on these issues. 

"They are an important part but they don't speak for the larger African-American population," he said. "When you read the report, it comes off very much from a business perspective." 

Broome in response said she recognizes the Black community isn't monolithic and that the concentration on the report's recommendations regarding street names and monuments ignores the overall goal of the commission, which was to provide a space where a racial reckoning for the community could be discussed and debated openly.

She stressed that all the commission's meeting, which were conducted virtually, were open to the public. 

She also said her team's involvement in the commission's work was simply to provide whatever support members needed over the course of their work.

"None of that was done with an ulterior motive to direct the process," she said. "You have to know COREI was never designed to discount the voices or organizations on the front line of this work."

Broome added that she's committed on a path forward that includes more meetings with current commission members and new voices with meaningful insight on implementation of the reports various proposals. 

"Once again, these are recommendations. I'm going to add to the recommendations my equation on how I address things," she said. "Don't discount the work of individuals who just tried to share in a very comprehensive way their thoughts, research and input."

"I certainly have my own thoughts," she added. "I'm not going to ignore the concerns that have been established around symbols of racism."


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com