Second in an occasional series about racism in our communities.
Education will be key to dismantling systemic racism over time, according to Vermont experts.
Without education, it can be hard to get people to acknowledge racism at all.
A recent article outlined the perspectives of two people of color who have called Vermont home, and their stories fell along similar lines — Vermont’s deep-seated racism seems to stem mostly from a lack of understanding of different cultures, rather than true hatred.
“I can realize now, looking back, it came from just not having any understanding that black people are not all the stereotypes that we see, or that are portrayed to us. I think it came from just not having any actual contact with a person who is black, other than myself,” said the Rev. Devon Thomas, a pastor in Waterville whose family moved from Connecticut to Vermont when he was 13.
But no matter where it comes from, ignorance leads to race-based discrimination and barriers that keep people of color away from opportunities such as housing, employment and education, said James Lyall, executive director of Vermont’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We know that from listening and learning to the lived experiences of people of color in Vermont,” Lyall said. “We know that also from the data, including police data which has repeatedly shown people of color stopped and searched at much higher rates than white Vermonters.”
He also pointed to the high rates of incarceration of people of color in Vermont.
While U.S. Census data indicates just 1.4 percent of Vermont’s population is black, 8.5 percent of the people in Vermont prisons are black, according to a 2018 report to the Vermont Legislature.
Lyall said many people in Vermont think racism simply doesn’t exist here.
He said it’s important to stress that “systemic racism is a reality in Vermont, just like it is in the rest of the country, different from individual racist acts. It is that, but it’s also about the ways racism shows up in broader and more structural and institutional forms.”
He said Vermont needs a widespread public-education effort “to counter the idea that, in a country founded and defined by white supremacy, Vermont is somehow immune. Vermont is not immune.
“The first step to fixing some of these problems is admitting that they exist. We continually reiterate and remind people that we have to drop the illusion that racism doesn’t happen here in Vermont or that it doesn’t extend beyond individual acts. It runs through every aspect of our society,” Lyall said.
The Vermont ACLU has been making that point in court.
In one recent case, Gregory Zullo, a Rutland County resident, received a $50,000 settlement after a court ruled he was profiled when he was stopped by Vermont State Police five years ago.
“Police can be held accountable for engaging in racial profiling,” Lyall said, and a “reason for stopping people of color, the smell of burnt marijuana, is not enough to justify a stop.”
Still in the courts is a lawsuit the ACLU is spearheading, contending the Bennington Police Department regularly profiles people of color and track their actions unfairly, as compared to white people.
“And yet the police chief there maintains that they don’t have any problems. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re up against, the idea that Vermont doesn’t have a problem, or that its institutions aren’t made up of individuals who carry bias, implicit and explicit. That’s something that’s going to have to change,” Lyall said.
That’s where education comes in.
Different, not wrong
The Legislature voted this year to form a 20-member group on how to change school curriculums to accurately include people of color.
Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex Junction, was one of the bill’s four sponsors.
“There is a movement nationwide, but also in Vermont, with some understanding that we ought to be working toward greater storytelling in our curriculum that includes the stories of traditionally marginalized individuals and groups,” Giambatista said.
People from communities that have historically been marginalized will be part of the 20-member group, working with education policymakers to craft education standards “that would better improve our social equity and ethnic studies standards,” Giambatista said. “If you look at other states that have moved in this direction — Oregon passed legislation — it’s making sure that individuals who have historically not been included in our history and our lessons are brought into it. Oftentimes, the stories that they tell are very valuable to understanding the progress we’ve made as a nation and as individuals.”
Amanda Garces, who moved to the U.S. from Colombia with her two young children three years ago, was among the first voices urging passage of the bill.
Before moving to Vermont, she and her family lived in the Southwest, “which is very diverse and multiracial. Coming here, it was really important that my kids and all the children have the education they deserve, that talks about a different world that exists,” Garces said.
The bill cited a 1990s study that found racism was prevalent in Vermont schools.
“There are a lot of implicit biases that happen, little incidents here and there, going to playgroups where I am being asked if I am the babysitter of my children, or things like that,” Garces said.
“This is a way to be proactive about changing the educational standards instead of being passive. … I am hoping the educational standards are the floor, not the ceiling. I’m hoping that they’ll learn about not only a lens of victimhood, which is what we see being taught in a lot of schools, but that our communities are resisters, that we are courageous, that we have been fighting for a long time and have really amazing people, writers and astronauts, that aren’t all white. That there’s a lot of us who are happy enough to be able to know writers who inspired us, who looked like me, who feel like me,” Garces said.
“The desire to go travel and meet other people who are not like you to learn, to ask questions: ‘Why are you eating that? Why do you like that music?’ Instead of saying it’s the wrong music or the wrong food. I think that is the key. It’s not education, just dumping information into kids’ heads, but having critical conversations, asking questions and being curious about the world.”
Local schools take action
This summer, teachers and staff members are getting sensitivity training and learning to address implicit and explicit bias toward people of color, said Tracy Wrend, the Lamoille South school superintendent.
The district is working with two trainers from Northern Vermont University.
“It’s an important part of breaking down stereotypes and barriers,” Wrend said. “Education also unfortunately is a system like many others that unintentionally perpetuates inequities, so our work to promote social justice and ensure that all young people have the opportunity to be productive, contributing members of our economy and our democracy and be self-reliant individuals has not only instructional implications but also systemic implications.
“It’s work we have to do with ourselves as well as our students.
“The more I learn about racial and social justice, the more I discover systemic practices that disadvantage people that I didn’t know about because I didn’t live it,” Wrend said.
“One of the areas that I’ve learned more about lately is the Jewish religion and anti-Semitism, and how different it must feel to be Jewish in Lamoille County as compared to being Jewish in a part of the country where there’s a large Jewish population. That’s an example. That then got me thinking about how does it feel to be black,” Wrend said.
“This is a very important priority and focus area for the work across all of our schools going forward and we’re looking forward to open, honest conversations and creating safe learning spaces where all can grow in their understanding and in their abilities to contribute to that positive learning environment,” she said.