A group of Castleton University students is working to charter Vermont’s third chapter of the NAACP — and its first collegiate unit.
Ray Awusi, a senior at Castleton, watched as racial justice protests erupted last summer after George Floyd and other Black Americans died at the hands of police. He had already been meeting with other students who wanted a place to speak freely about racial justice. Then, the university raised the Black Lives Matter flag, further sparking his appetite for activism.
Raphael Okutoro, who chairs the Rutland Area NAACP Criminal Justice Committee and works in admissions at Castleton, connected with Awusi, and they began talking about chartering a student chapter of the organization within the Rutland branch’s jurisdiction.
Now, what members are calling the “Aspiring” NAACP Chapter at Castleton — they’re hoping the NAACP national board of directors will make the chapter official later this spring — has also become one of the campus’s largest official clubs, with about 35 consistent members.
“It’s for all ages, and we represent more than just African Americans. We represent the whole BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community,” Awusi said. “So I just think it’s a great way of getting people involved.
To charter a new chapter, the students at Castleton, whose enrollment is about 1,900, have to meet the same criteria that other schools across the country must meet, including a sustained 25-member minimum. Awusi said he also had to make sure the school’s policy lined up with NAACP requirements, which required some minor tweaks.
“We’ve already submitted all those forms, all those documents. We’ve got to make sure that we were in line with what their expectations are before they make that decision,” Okutoro said. “We’re confident that this will happen. It’s just timing.”
Until that official designation comes, leaders of the Rutland branch have donated NAACP memberships to the participants in Castleton’s group, enabling them to organize events under the NAACP name.
Last Tuesday, the group held a “Know Your Rights” training, facilitated by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, providing guidance to young Vermonters of color during interactions with police, along with advice for witnesses.
It’s the second time Awusi has participated in the training at Castleton — the first event predated the NAACP chapter’s formation.
“A lot of people don’t know what they can and can’t say during traffic stops, or if an officer shows up at your front door. It’s better to have that information,” Awusi said. “Every time, I learn something new.”
Like larger branches of the NAACP, the organization will be a resource for anyone who encounters racism or harassment at the university. Awusi said the organization is already handling two complaints.
“The main part of the chapter was just to be an outlet that people could trust, because currently, when people have any racial issues, the only person you can really contact is campus safety,” he said. “I don’t know about everybody else, but I know if I have a racial issue, the last person I’m going to talk to is campus safety.”
Awusi will graduate this month and begin military training in Virginia this fall. He said several younger students will likely take his place at the organization’s helm, and he’s confident the Castleton chapter will be able to keep up its 25-member requirement.
“It’s a huge thing that’s missing from Castleton, but we can do that,” he said. “We can be that outlet that can help get people to the right resources.”
Rich Clark, a political science professor at Castleton, serves as a second adviser to the organization, alongside Okutoro. He said he’s mostly been operating in the background, coordinating some of the logistical work. The chapter has benefitted from the success of the Rutland branch, he said, which is one of the NAACP’s largest branches in the Northeast.
“We had community momentum there,” he said.
He also pointed to Castleton President Jonathan Spiro’s inclusion statements, which were prompted by the racial justice events from the summer.
“The president made a pledge to address systemic racism,” Clark said. “The NAACP is the student group that really is there to help the administration make good on this, and to hold them accountable for making good on it.”
Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland branch, said she’s appreciated seeing the organization take hold among younger Vermonters.
“The fact that they were able to galvanize enough interest, which is 25 to 35 people who want to have this at that school, is pretty amazing to me,” she said. “It means that we’re moving forward, and that people care, and people need community like this to address the issues that affect Black and brown people.”
If you want to keep tabs on Vermont's education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.