“Vermont is a wonderful state, but racism is alive and well here,” said Hope Petraro, founder of the Race Against Racism.
She founded the event when she moved from New York to Vermont and was hit hard by culture shock.
“I found the comparative lack of ethnic diversity really, really challenging,” she said. “Although a little culture shock is obviously good for the soul and definitely gave me a sense of perspective, it also spurred me into action.
“Vermont is the whitest state in America. Although I knew that was something I couldn’t change, what I could do is celebrate the diversity we do have here.”
And so the race was born. The event was a hit, and is now in its third year.
The events around the 2019 race, held in Montpelier, were filled with brutally honest speeches. The impressive lineup of musical talent and powerful speakers attracted crowds, helping to draw the community together.
Groups from all over Vermont gathered to Race Against Racism (or, for those less inclined to run, to dance and eat pizza against racism). Local groups included high school students, teachers and active community members.
Among the many teams attending was the Stowe High School field hockey team — plus soccer player Izzy Masi — led by captains Rachel Cunningham and Mackie Eagan.
“I think it’s important for sports teams to have an active role in the community,” Cunningham said, “and to represent the school in positive ways.”
The team arrived ready to party, jamming out to A2VT’s African-western pop-fused sound before the run. Many finished the 5K race quickly, pulling impressive times. Those who took a more lackadaisical approach made up for their lack of speed with flair, crossing the finish line hand in hand.
Why they were there
After everyone had sprinted, run or walked across the finish line, Petraro gave a rundown of the event’s history, and why the race continues to be important every year.
Then she yielded the stage to others to relate their own reasons for being at the race that day.
Jaya Touma Shoatz talked about institutionalized racism and its effect on her life — and going to see her grandfather in prison. That day, the 5-year-old Shoatz wore a beautiful, sparkly dress that she adored, and will never forget the way it was cut apart with a car key to meet the dress code for visitors in the prison. She would come to realize that prison was part of life for many people of color, and the numbers clearly show that men like her grandfather go to prison at a much higher rate than others. It’s so pervasive that, as a little girl, Shoatz didn’t understand that hers wasn’t the average experience.
She made way for Rajnii Eddins, a poet from the University of Vermont who’s giving a reading tonight, Thursday, at the Helen Day Art Center in Stowe. He focuses less on the personal and more on the systematic oppression that spans states and countries, inequalities written into our laws. He chanted the names of victims of the Stand Your Ground law, victims of police, victims of everyday hate, echoed by the crowd after each. The list goes on and on, including Emmett Till, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Eddins went on, names changing into titles and phrases: “Strange fruit, stranger in a strange land, enemy of the state, collateral damage, white man’s burden, that happened so long ago, chain gang, on the run, wanted, his name is your hands up. Spread ‘em, or I’ll shoot! His name is bang! 41 shots!”
Again and again, “His name is beaten severely, crackhead, scapegoat, victim, drug dealer, expendable, racial profiling; his name has a title, but he dies.” Eddins insisted that the crowd say the names, as he illustrated that, after their lives are taken, so are their identities, reducing them to a statistic or stereotype. Finally, Eddins finished: “I know his name, because his name is mine.”
Next was Kiah Morris — a Bennington Democrat who resigned from the Vermont Legislature last year, citing years of racial harassment. She thanked the crowd for coming, but said there is much farther to go. She compared the struggle for equality to the 5K run, being sore, and aching, and hot, but continuing anyway. Struggling through, even though it would be far easier to give in, to go home.
“This is something we know about racism,” she said. “We have centuries of doing it wrong. Centuries of doing what is comfortable … and for that people have died.”
Morris reminded the crowd why they gathered, and why Hope Petraro founded the event in the first place: “We’re here today because I was the second black woman in this state’s history to be in that Capitol, and I’m proud of that title but ashamed it was that way.”
She talked about people who feel invisible, who lack role models, who don’t see a place for themselves in American society or the school curriculum.
Morris finished as she started, thanking the crowd for not choosing comfort over action, and “for standing up against this insidious disease that is taking over our world.”
After Morris finished, the crowd begins to dissipate, played out by DJ Crystal Jonez, taking the day’s intentions home with them.
Sage Lively is a senior at Stowe High School.