Local NAACP chapter seeks structural change

A screen grab of Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County Chapter of the NAACP, speaking to the Brattleboro Rotary Club.

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BRATTLEBORO — Members of the Brattleboro Rotary Club were encouraged to examine their "sphere of influence" to find ways to support marginalized community members.

"We're part of an ecosystem," Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a member of the governor's equity task force, said at the club's meeting held remotely Thursday. "We're the sum of all of our parts and people of color specifically have been given a very small niche ... I would say what you could do in your time here with your structural power is to work to widen that power, widen that niche, widen their ability to move and have that mobility."

Gillom suggested support can come via employment and retention, advocacy work, contributions to organizations or efforts, and making connections between older and younger community members. He noted the NAACP originally started as a collaboration between Black people and white allies.

The Windham County chapter was founded in 2018. Gillom said the group focuses on economic sustainability, education, health, public safety and criminal justice, voting rights and political representation, and youth and adult engagement.

Recent efforts involved pushing for the state to release COVID-19 race data which helped identify disparities, fighting against acts of hate such as racist graffiti in local communities, renaming Negro Brook in Townshend, advocating for the Windham Southeast School District to create a racial equity action plan, and supporting proposals to have a mural put up in Putney and establish an equity committee to review police contracts in the same town. The group also weighs in when state laws and policies are being crafted or reviewed.

Gillom encouraged rotarians to join the local chapter, which has committees dedicated to education, legal issues and policy.

In a group of about 23 participants in Thursday's videoconference, he asked if anyone had a negative experience with the police and counted about two who said yes. He brought up a social media post from a friend who had also gone through an NAACP program aimed at bringing together Black, brown and white leaders from all over the country.

"He said, 'When was the first time that you had a gun pulled on you by police?'" Gillom said, estimating that about 150 Black and Hispanic men and women commented on the post with some answering with "15" or "16."

Gillom recalled his own traumatic experience happening while picking up his pregnant cousin to go get fast food at the age of 25.

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"My aunt lived down an alleyway and there was a seatbelt stop, and I decided I didn't want to do that because they lived in the alley and the alley's right there so I didn't go to the seatbelt stop," he said. "I just pulled over to the side and they thought I was fleeing the scene of something and chased me, you know, pulled me over, pulled me outside of the car, put the gun on me and ripped my floorboards apart and everything, and then took her to jail, threw her on the floor."

Ron Stahley, retired Windham Southeast superintendent, said he was accused of a hit and run at the age of 17 at Hampton Beach.

"They took me to the police substation," he said. "I don't think he pulled a gun on me but it was pretty traumatic for a young kid. I actually had to stay in the substation."

Stahley applauded Gillom for his work in the community and encouraged him to continue efforts in the schools.

Gillom said before he decided to be therapist, he had an internship with the only Black judge in a circuit court who told him he sees white people tend to have more connections.

"He said, 'I have seen wealthy Black families come to my courtroom without the same structural support,'" Gillom said. "He said, 'People think because they have money they can get out of the situation.' He said, 'No. They use all their money trying to get out of the situation.'"

Gillom said the judge told him, "You have one time to mess up and if you get in that system, it's going to be hell or high water to get you out."

That prompted Gillom to wonder if he could afford any missteps. Mistakes, he said, sometimes make the best leaders.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.