(This story is by Cherise Madigan of the Manchester Journal, in which it first appeared Oct. 9, 2017.)
MANCHESTER — While politically progressive states such as Vermont are often viewed as bastions of racial equality, MoveOn Manchester’s members say there is ample evidence that racism is a real issue in the state.
To address it the organization will host a Community Forum on Race and Diversity in Southern Vermont, in partnership with the Rutland Area NAACP, on Oct. 19. Organizers hope the event will shed light on the minority experience.
“Before I started my work with my MoveOn chapter’s Diversity Alliance, I could only assume that there might be some racism in our area,” said MoveOn Manchester’s founder, Jonathan Fine. “The specific instances of racism that I’ve heard about happening locally in the short time I’ve been involved with this group have truly alarmed me.”
“The event is going to focus on a dialogue between participants and panelists, sharing personal experiences with race and racism in schools,” said co-organizer Tabitha Pohl-Moore of the Rutland Area NAACP. “We’re including people of color who went to school in this region, with a particular focus on (Burr and Burton Academy) and other Manchester schools.”
According to Fine, racism is an almost invisible issue.
“When I began this conversation with other group members as we formed our organization and mission statement earlier this year, I would occasionally hear from them, and community members,” said Fine. “(I’d hear) statements such as, ‘This is wonderful and I fully support this mission, but do you really think we have a problem with racism here?'”
Statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union show that Vermont incarcerates African-American men at a higher rate than any other state. The Legislature, during its most recent session, recognized racial justice issues as significantly troubling and requiring specialized study, attention and resolution.
Historically, area high school sporting events have seen overt displays of racism directed at black student athletes, according to Fine. In May, the locally produced documentary “Divided by Diversity” shed light on the issue, showing footage of BBA students chanting racist remarks toward players on the Mount St. Joseph Academy basketball team in 2012.
An apology from BBA Headmaster Mark Tashjian, and a renewed commitment from the school to acknowledge and address issues of race, followed.
“What I’ve come to discover about the prevailing reality here is that no, we don’t have a race problem from a white perspective,” said Fine. “Most of us don’t actually have the awareness of what it’s like to be a person of color in our community and the racist comments and attitudes with which many of our minority neighbors and visitors have, all too frequently, been confronted.”
During the discussion, a panel composed of local activists and community members will present individual experiences from southwestern Vermont residents and visitors of color, with a discussion to follow. Organizers hope to inform and educate attendees on attitudes, prejudices and obstacles people of color face locally.
“We’re going to be talking about what it was like being a person of color going to school, and sharing things that others in the community should know about what that experience is like and what could be done differently,” said Pohl-Moore. “We want to engage in a dialogue with participants who are white as well, and talk about what their awareness was like regarding race, and what they can do now.”
In shedding light on the issue, both groups hope to prompt a larger discussion on race in the region.
“My goal is twofold: to educate the general public that people of color in our community do still, remarkably, face racism in this day and age, and two, to start a conversation about what we as citizens can do about it,” said Fine. “It’s largely about listening, observing, caring and speaking up.”
The forum will be Oct. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at Burr and Burton Academy’s Riley Center. For more information, visit the MoveOn Manchester Facebook page or contact Jonathan Fine at [email protected]