Editor’s note: This commentary is by Curtiss Reed Jr., the executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
In a moment of bewildered frustration after your encounter with Black Lives Matter activists in Arizona you asked, “How do we best deal with racism in America?” Your inquiry and affect indicated to us that you have moved from a state of being “unconsciously unskillful” with people of color to a state of being “consciously unskillful.” And this shift sets the stage for powerful, effective change if you are up to the task.
As executive director of Vermont’s longest operating nonprofit governed by people of color working towards racial and social justice I feel particularly qualified to respond to your plea. For two decades Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity has been helping well-intentioned white Vermonters move through being “consciously unskillful” to that of being “consciously skillful.” This work with white Vermonters serves as one cornerstone of our Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Initiative. Last year we completed the first decade of this four decades-long initiative.
We take you at your word and are encouraged that you have added Marcus Ferrell to your team since the Arizona incident. We have a lot of respect for the depth of Ferrell’s experience and insight as a political strategist and organizer. And while Ferrell brings heft to your campaign, the real work to be done is yours and yours alone. Our question to you is “Do you have the personal fortitude, political will and stamina to do the difficult work of moving beyond being well-intentioned?”
We offer the following five recommendations that only you can do for your own benefit. You cannot get the desired results by delegating these tasks to others. And whereas your entire campaign staff and volunteers should engage the following, this is about your personal and professional growth.
Acknowledge there are people of color living in Vermont. Every time you refer to Vermont as the whitest state in the nation you reinforce the narrative that people of color simply do not count in Vermont when in fact people of African heritage have been here since the 1600s and helped bring Vermont into statehood. We want Vermont to be known in fact, practice and appearance as the most welcoming state in the nation.
Personally and frequently meet with groups of Vermonters of color across the state to learn of the micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations and micro-injustices we experience under the New Jim Crow. First understand our experiences up close and personal before trying to make yourself and positions understood.
Partnering with your constituents of color in Vermont will make you a stronger and more effective operative on behalf of dismantling racism and creating a society where people of color expect and experience justice.
Personally and frequently meet with the organizations governed and managed by people of color engaged in the struggle to dismantle structural racism in Vermont to learn what has been working and where there are substantial challenges. Learn from us how to create a space for honest open exchange that leads to consensus concrete action.
Personally and frequently meet with white Vermonters who are working at the “consciously skillful” level to learn firsthand the challenges they face helping their well-intentioned white colleagues.
Stop talking about your experience in the civil rights movement of five decades ago like a proud Eagle Scout showing off his merit badges. Focus not on your past but on the actions you must undertake to address racial injustice today in the proud tradition of Vermont senators past and present.
For example, Sen. Justin Morrill, who introduced the Land Grant Act of 1890 that led to the creation of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Imagine how different the civil rights movement would be without the leadership of legions of HBCU alumni. Sen. Patrick Leahy, as a more contemporary example, has taken on two of the highest priorities for the civil rights/racial justice community: restoring the Voting Rights Act (which goes to the very core of racial justice) and ending mandatory minimum sentences. No one in Congress in modern times has done more to spotlight civil rights, voting rights and civil liberties issues as fully and frequently as Sen. Leahy.
Finally, understand that you, Bernie, are a work in progress; addressing racial injustice starts with the personal — the “being” is as important as the “doing.” Partnering with your constituents of color in Vermont will make you a stronger and more effective operative on behalf of dismantling racism and creating a society where people of color expect and experience justice. We understand Vermont, the context of racial injustice, and the particular opportunities well-intentioned white Vermonters, like yourself, to walk the talk of racial justice.
If you want to engage in the broadening of your understanding of people of color start here in Vermont and let’s set aside time to meet soon. Doing so would send a clear message that you are on the path to acquire the personal attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary to represent all peoples, including those of us of color.
P.S. I dropped by your campaign headquarters last week to speak with you directly however you were on the road. Instead I spoke with your campaign field director, Phil Fiermonte, and asked that he convey my thoughts as noted in this letter.