On one side of Center Road in Essex Center on the Friday before Memorial Day, the last of about 100 maskless residents cram into the standing-room-only section in the back of a stuffy Grange Hall.
They’ve gathered to discuss critical race theory, an academic concept that the event’s guest speakers allege is corrupting the curriculum at the Essex-Westford School District and indoctrinating its students.
But inside the Essex United Methodist Church — directly across the street — students at Essex High School paint a different scene of life within school walls.
Speaking to about 40 people at an event centered on anti-racism work in the community and in Essex schools, the six-student panel describes ineffective anti-racist webinars, and videos shown in class that not all students pay attention to.
They also speak of a majority-white faculty struggling to have difficult conversations about racism and intolerance, occasionally even enlisting students of color to lead classroom discussions.
Tilly Krishna, a senior and student body president at Essex High School, says more work remains to be done.
“Whether they talk about it in schools or not, we’re all hearing things … we see what’s happening in the world,” Krishna says. “I think it doesn’t hurt anyone to actually talk about these things at school, when we’re all thinking it in our heads.”
The anti-racism event was organized in part as a response to the event across Center Road, according to state Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex Town, who arranged the event.
The main focus, however, was to hear from those most affected by inequity and educate community members on what anti-racist work entails.
“I think there’s a lot of fear around what that looks like, and sort of a conflation of anti-racism being anti-white, which is not the same thing,” Vyhovsky said in an interview Thursday.
Critical race theory is a decades-old academic concept that, in part, examines the perpetuation of systemic racism through current laws and practices. In recent weeks, it has emerged as a lightning rod for conservative ire as school districts across the country enact policies in response to a nationwide reckoning on racial justice.
The Essex-Westford School District is not implementing a curriculum based around the theory, according to a report published by the board after it met on May 18. Some of the initiatives at Essex High are being driven by students, such as the Social Justice Union that Krishna helped to start.
Krishna also made national headlines last summer for creating a 30-day calendar of anti-racist challenges and activities.
“We felt like our school wasn’t doing a good enough job having these conversations in the building, and we felt that if they weren’t being had in the building, we weren’t getting them anywhere,” Krishna said.
Critics fear ‘dangerous’ indoctrination
Other voices in the community have voiced concerns about efforts to open lines of communication, casting them under the critical race theory umbrella.
Friday’s town hall-style assembly at the Grange event was organized by Ellie Martin, who also organized the Vermont bus trip that took 51 people to Washington, D.C., to protest at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Liz Cady, newly elected member of the Essex-Westford School District Board, called the theory “downright dangerous,” and dissected language in the equity policy currently under development by the school board.
“Critical race theory and all of its derivatives, no matter how nice the words are that they use, should not be in our public schools,” Cady said at the event.
Cady has been a staunch opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement, and criticized the school board when it unanimously approved a student-led motion to fly the Black Lives Matter flag at the district’s schools.
Though Cady says that every life matters, “it is the underlying message and meaning of the BLM organization that has no place within our schools,” she said at a school board meeting last September.
Cady went on to compare elements of the Black Lives Matter movement with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.
The Nazis’ rise to power “began in 1930 with riots, burning of stores, and violent acts,” Cady falsely claimed. “And that sounds very similar, very similar of the early tactics of National Socialism in Germany, and the tactics employed by the BLM organization. It’s striking.”
Cady did not reply to an interview request by VTDigger.
Cady was joined by another office-holder, state Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex-Orleans.
Ingalls was a familiar name in the Newport area even before his election to the state Senate last November, though less was known about his politics. He quickly demonstrated he wasn’t afraid to swim against the current — even if he was alone in doing so.
And he was the lone dissenter when the Senate approved legislation that would make it easier for undocumented people living in Vermont to obtain Dr. Dinosaur-style medical care, saying he wished Vermont would work to accelerate paths to citizenship instead.
While Ingalls knew that critical race theory would be on the agenda, he said at the Essex event that he wanted to keep his remarks broad, and use the event as “basically a campaign stump speech.”
“I just think the premise that the United States is an inherently racist country is not true,” Ingalls said in an interview Friday. VTDigger was not present for Ingalls’ comments at the event Friday.
Alex Katsnelson, a senior at Essex High, also spoke Friday at the Grange. He said he prepared a visual presentation to show the crowd examples of the materials shown in class, but was unable to share it as somebody forgot to bring a projector.
Back on the southern side of Center road, a few dozen community members still remained in the drafty room in the back of the church, listening as intently as they were two hours earlier.
Community members don’t often get the chance to hear directly from students about what resources they need, one resident said. Vyhovsky said she hopes Friday night’s event is the first in a long line of community-oriented conversations.
“A lot of us have parents who have views that are a little outdated, I think,” said Abby Brooks, a senior at Essex High. The people in the crowd, much older than the students they came to listen to, laughed in acknowledgement.
“If you learn in school that your voice matters and you can hear other perspectives, and you can stand up to your parents and you can stand up to other adults and voice that, I think that will get you very far in life,” Brooks said.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.