BRATTLEBORO — Etan Nasreddin-Longo thought he had tackled seemingly every problem as head of the state’s Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel. Then the group hit another one: how to put its findings into words the public wouldn’t dismiss as alienating or alarmist.
“People were concerned that if we included a term like ‘white supremacy,’ the work we’re doing would get shelved and ignored,” Nasreddin-Longo says.
So goes the two-sided challenge Vermont social justice advocates face as they seek to promote diversity in the nation’s second whitest state. Prejudice and discrimination is one issue. How to communicate with people in a way that enables them to tune in is another.
“As a person in leadership, it’s tricky figuring out how to move our population forward,” says Bennington Selectboard Chair Donald Campbell, whose town is studying the issue of racial harassment after its former black state legislator, Kiah Morris, resigned after receiving threats.
About 70 local and state government, business, school, spiritual, civic and law enforcement leaders of different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations gathered for this month’s Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Conference at Brattleboro’s World Learning to talk about obstacles and opportunities.
Xusana Davis, the state’s first executive director of racial equity who recently moved to the state from New York City, said while Vermonters take pride in early historic efforts to abolish slavery and adopt same-sex unions, residents here have a ways to go when it comes to racial discrimination.
Passersby frequently ask Davis: “Are you the new person?”
“Yeah, how’d you know?” she replies.
Davis was hired to help the state attract a more diverse population at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau projects the rest of the country will be “minority white” by 2045. About 92.5% of Vermont’s population is white, according to Census data.
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“I haven’t had the sort of jarring, horrible experiences that one would read about in a paper or on a Facebook screed,” Davis says, “but I’ve experienced the same kind of covert racism here I have experienced my whole life.”
Reports of hate crimes in Vermont are at the highest level since the Federal Bureau of Investigation began posting statistics a quarter century ago, with incidents targeting race, ethnicity and ancestry, religion, disabilities, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Social justice advocates say addressing the problem is complicated by the fact that many Vermonters consider themselves enlightened and close themselves to further education while others see themselves as victims of political correctness in an electorally progressive state.
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, recalls organizing a bias workshop for legislators when a colleague announced he wouldn’t be attending.
“He was very well-meaning when he said, ‘I’m glad you’re doing this for other people who need it. I have black friends, so it’s all good,’” she says.
Balint knows people of color, too. But that doesn’t stop her from regularly attending such events.
“Even though I’m someone who has faced discrimination,” Balint, who is the first openly gay woman to serve in the state Senate, says, “I still have my own blinders. It’s difficult for people to realize we all have to revisit these issues, we all have to continue to learn and grow, we all still have a lot of work to do.”
Bennington is navigating the same tightrope as it assesses the town’s response to harassment in the wake of Rep. Morris’ resignation. Municipal leaders say many residents know the self-described white nationalist who has harassed Morris and figure since they’re not like him, they’re not part of the problem.
“It has been very painful and caused a lot of soul searching,” Selectboard member Campbell says.
Assistant Town Manager Daniel Monks says helping the community address racial discrimination is important not only for his town but also for the demographics of the region. All of Bennington County’s 17 towns and all but one of Windham County’s 23 communities have lost population in the past decade.
“I’ve come to believe it’s imperative that if southern Vermont is going to survive, we need to attract folks,” Monks says.
The conference featured representatives of municipalities from Brattleboro to Burlington, the state Agency of Transportation and departments of Health and Mental Health, Libraries and Public Safety, and churches and community groups. Much of the discussion focused on how to talk about diversity in ways that engage everyone.
“I think it’s much less an issue of how to, but the courage to do it,” says Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the conference-organizing Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. “The more people talk, it becomes a topic of conversation and we can begin to address all the nuances of racism, sexism, xenophobia, whatever the problem might be.”
Advocates also call for listening.
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“It’s very easy for us to look at our successes, shrug our shoulders and say, ‘We’re pretty much there,’” Davis says. “Working toward a better society requires that we always be working toward a better society. That means owning up to the instances we see of discrimination, whether along race lines, against people living with disabilities, ageism in either direction or the LGBTQIA+ community. If we’re not willing to identify our shortcomings, then we’re not really going to be who we claim to be.”
State Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, sees reason for optimism. One of only five non-white faces in the 150-member Vermont House, he likes to tell the story of Montpelier High becoming the first reported public school in the nation to fly a Black Lives Matter flag.
“It isn’t that people don’t want to have the discussion, I think they don’t know how to have the discussion,” Christie says of the larger population. “The youth of Vermont are showing us there’s hope.”