Forum on race sheds light on minority experience in Vermont

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MANCHESTER — What role does race play in a largely white state like Vermont?

That question, among others, was addressed during a community forum on race and diversity held at Burr and Burton Academy Thursday night. The forum was sponsored by MoveOn Manchester and the Rutland Area NAACP.

While the forum largely focused on the experiences of students of color in Southern Vermont, the discussion evolved into a larger community forum on race in Vermont, a state often lauded for its progressive politics.

"People applaud when I go to other places and say that I'm from Vermont. We are amazing, but we are also not exceptional," said panelist Kiah Morris, who represents Bennington in the Vermont House of Representatives. "There is not an exceptionalism in that we have somehow gotten it completely right. There's many things that we're missing out on."

Among those things, according to panelists, is a meaningful recognition of racial justice issues in the state.

"As a legislator I have the incredible

opportunity to speak to not only the challenges that those in my community are facing, but Vermonters from all over are facing -- particularly in regards to racial discrimination and bias throughout our state," said Morris, who was the first black woman elected to Vermont's legislature in almost 30 years. "In recent reports we have seen that Bennington County is anecdotally considered to be the most racist county in the entire state."

According to Morris, the Bennington County court system sends more people of color to prison than any other county. Additionally, Morris asserts that Bennington County police profile at a rate five times higher than anywhere else in the state.

"We need to reform our criminal justice system," said Morris, who spearheaded Act 54 in the legislature this past term, seeking to establish a racial justice panel charged with addressing, identifying, and systematizing a method for eradicating racial bias and discrimination throughout Vermont. "It's repugnant for a state that is lauded for being so progressive."

Equally important to criminal justice reform, according to panelists, is an increased emphasis on the experiences of Vermont's students of color.

"I have a young, black son and I have concerns about what this means for our future," continued Morris. "I have concerns about what this means for students that are currently in our educational system."

For many students that can result in a sense of isolation according to panelists, alongside clear-cut instances of racial bigotry.

"What prompted me to look for education outside of my home state that I absolutely loved, was that any sort of reflection of my racial identity was missing," said Tabitha Pohl-Moore of the Rutland Area NAACP, who went on to share her experiences working in criminal justice, social justice, and educational systems. "In every single system it is so clear to me how we negate racial identity in kids."

"I feel a responsibility to people like me; especially black girls who are going through the education system in Southern Vermont. I felt like growing up here I had a great experience, but I didn't celebrate my blackness enough and I wasn't encouraged to do that," said panelist Naomi Johnson, a 2012 graduate of Burr and Burton Academy. "I really want to make sure that black girls growing up here love themselves. I want them to know that this is a space in which they can thrive."

According to panelists, feeling prohibited in fully embracing their identity is a real issue for Vermonters of color not often addressed by the larger community.

"The things that compound my exact life experience are definitely indicated by my race. They are indicated by my gender identification, they are impacted by my income and my ability to move within the workforce, my educational attainment, the literal neighborhood that I live in, and my access to educational opportunities," said Morris. "They all go into creating my lived experience here as a Vermonter."

"That's why Vermont is so progressive, right? Because we don't talk about ableism, we don't talk about gender, we don't talk about race, we just don't talk about it," said Pohl-Moore. "We can pretend we have all of these progressive ideals and we pass all of this great legislation, but we're not actually doing anything with the people."

That lack of recognition and constructive dialogue, especially within the school system, can discourage many Vermonters of color from staying in the state according to Pohl-Moore.

"Vermonters of color leave, we do not want to stay here," said Pohl-Moore. "Some of us stay, but a lot of us leave."

"What is happening in Vermont schools around racial bias, and how are we going to eliminate it? Who is left out and who is erased from our state's history?" asked Morris. "Who leaves and does not return because of the experiences they have and the childhood that was forged for them by systems of oppression and inequality within the very places that are supposed to protect, nurture, and care for their growing spirits?"

For white Vermonters there is an important responsibility to not just recognize these issues, but speak up according to MoveOn Manchester founder Jonathan Fine.

"A lot of people may not understand what their role is," acknowledged Fine. "Your role is to care. Your role is to stay awake to what is going on. Your role is to get involved with anything that's happening anywhere you can; whether it's the school board meeting or a future forum. Your role is to not run away when things get difficult."

"I'm worried about the people who are afraid to speak out, and that's what you guys need to do. That's what the white people in the audience need to do," said Johnson. "It's not only about educating black people, it's also educating white people; and a lot of the educators in the room need to do a lot more."

While opening up a community dialogue is a meaningful first step, according to panelists, much more needs to be done to move towards racial equality in Vermont.

"Carl Jung observed that neurosis was caused by the avoidance of legitimate suffering, and that's something important to consider when we're talking about racial justice," said panelist Theo Talcott. "It's far too easy to look away, but as white allies it's important for us to sit with that suffering."

"I want you to know that everything is not alright. Not here in this beautiful building; on this beautiful campus that looks nothing like any other private or public school in the rest of the state of Vermont," said Morris. "Things are not even perfect here, with all of the best intentions."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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