Gov. Phil Scott announced this week that a new statewide program, called IDEAL — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Action and Leadership — will encourage Vermont’s municipalities to focus more proactively on equity.
Much of the injustice baked into the systems of the country began at the local level, Xusana Davis, executive director of the state’s Office of Racial Equity, said at the governor’s press briefing this week. Her office will coordinate the program, providing a bridge between local and state officials on issues of equity.
“These are all issues that could, in part, be addressed at the state and federal levels, but that absolutely have to be tackled at the local level as well if we really want to move the needle,” she said.
The program’s mission is to bring municipalities together to share ideas and gather information about equity initiatives. Municipalities could create equitable land use policy, Davis said, or reimagine their community safety policies.
“That means things like properly handling discipline cases and cases where there are instances of officer misconduct or something like that,” she said. “It also means looking at what community safety is, not just from the lens of law enforcement. There are lots of ways that communities can feel more or less safe.”
Initiatives could be as complex as creating policies about hateful speech in schools, or as simple as installing street lights so joggers feel safer at night, she said. Placing more benches around town could help older Vermonters feel comfortable taking walks by providing rest points along the way.
In towns across Vermont — one of the whitest states in the nation — racial equity issues have often come to the fore.
In 2016, Rutland residents protested against then-Mayor Chris Louras’s efforts to make Rutland a home city for Syrian refugees fleeing war.
More recently, Tabitha Moore, director of the Rutland Area NAACP at the time, moved away from the area after facing harassment. Rutland residents and officials have clashed over whether to abolish the high school’s longtime mascot, the Raiders, amid concern over racism in the mascot’s origins.
In the Upper Valley, Hartford selectboard member Alicia Burrows resigned after experiencing what she called “blatant bigotry.” Burlington’s racial equity director resigned earlier this year after feeling unsupported and unwelcome in her role, according to reporting by Seven Days. In Barre, arguments about free speech and abortion rights have called the city’s diversity, equity and inclusion work into question.
In 2018, Kiah Morris, one of the state’s only Black lawmakers, resigned from her post at the Statehouse after facing racism and harassment in Bennington. Later, a Human Rights Commission report concluded that Bennington Police discriminated against her.
“While Vermont is a great place to live, with tight knit communities who care about their neighbors, not everyone has been welcomed. We have some work to do to make sure that they are,” Scott said at his press conference on Tuesday.
Fourteen communities have already signed on to the IDEAL program, including Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Essex, Fairfax, Hardwick, Hartford, Hinesburg, Orange, St. Albans, South Burlington, Richmond, Tinmouth and Winooski.
Jeannie Jenkins, chair of the Bennington selectboard, said IDEAL’s mission builds on work that the town has undertaken in the last several years. Morris’ experience spurred much of that work.
While Jenkins said the town has been making steady progress, the IDEAL program offered experts and opportunities for grant funding that would “maybe move things along faster than then we would be able to otherwise.”
Mia Schultz, director of the Rutland Area NAACP, said she hadn’t been told about the program or invited to collaborate with Bennington officials.
Davis said the IDEAL program aims to prevent municipal leaders from “passing the buck” to partner organizations and informal committees and declining to take ownership of the work themselves.
“We've created this space that’s specifically for local leaders in town government because we need them to be able to do what they're uniquely situated to do,” she said. “But we still need the input, the assistance and the guidance of those community organizations.”
Each community has a team of town representatives who are required to attend meetings, Davis said. Two introductory meetings have already taken place, she said.
“We're looking for people who have the authority, or at least the influence, to be able to implement what they're learning,” Davis said. “Otherwise, what we don't want to happen is for it to just get buried with somebody who has no power to actually bring these issues to the forefront in the community.”
Asked whether Davis would encourage more municipalities to join, she said the invitation is open.
“We're not trying to recruit or cajole anybody,” she said. “If you're not committed to this work, then it's probably better if you've made the decision not to participate. We'll be here when you're ready, but in the meantime, we'll be over here getting things done.”
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