MARLBORO — Community members are closely watching the group anticipated to be the next occupant of Potash Hill.
Democracy Builders founder Seth Andrew and his team are designing a new higher education initiative called Degrees of Freedom to be hosted on the campus formerly home to Marlboro College. The group has proposed an associate degree program for low-income students with cohorts staying on campus at different times of the year.
At the end of a special meeting lasting about three-and-a-half hours and held via video conference on Monday evening to discuss the project, Select Board Chairman Jesse Kreitzer saidAndrew and his team have an opportunity to learn from accounts alleging racism and bullying in the Democracy Prep network of charter schools founded by Democracy Builders while creating a pilot program.
"This is difficult and messy," he said. "I think we're all trying to figure out how to best heal as a community and determine next steps."
Kreitzer suggested the Vermont Council of Rural Development could help facilitate community dialogue in the future. He plans to share any questions submitted over the course of the meeting in the chat box or sent to the board in the hopes that the Degrees of Freedom design team would respond before an upcoming board meeting.
Marlboro College is merging with Emerson College in Boston, where an institute will be renamed and reshaped to allow the legacy of the small Vermont school to live on in name and through programming. The Marlboro campus is expected to be sold to Democracy Builders Fund Inc., a Delaware nonprofit based in New York.
Chandell Stone, director of recruitment for Degrees of Freedom and a former Democracy Prep teacher, said her group is seeking accreditation and an institutional partner to confer degrees. It is not anticipated to happen by this school year.
Stone said the program design team — as well as those who are in solidarity with individuals who brought forward allegations via a group on social media called Black N Brown at DP, and members of the Marlboro community—- all share a common goal of ensuring "psychological well-being, academic prowess and the economic future" of Black and brown people.
The design team is said to have five members, all of whom are people of color who have a range of experience. A policy guide or handbook was not yet available.
Jay Smith, a board member of Democracy Builders who attended Democracy Prep, said most of the board members are Black or brown and a recent retreat explored how to operate in anti-racist ways.
Andrew, also a member of the board, said Democracy Builders founded Democracy Prep and does not run it, although several people previously working at Democracy Prep will be involved with Degrees of Freedom. He apologized for becoming agitated when asked about the connection.
"I have devoted my life to expanding educational opportunities for traditionally disenfranchised communities," he said. "I have worked on projects and built schools in Harlem, in India, in Liberia, in Korea."
The schools are made to fit their "local context" but incorporate certain core values, Andrew said. He described pushback in Marlboro as "new and unique," and "unpleasant and unexpected."
Andrew and his team spoke of wanting to ensure incidents of racism do not occur at Degrees of Freedom. He said he does not expect to lead or direct Degrees of Freedom. He estimated someone on his team has spoken with more than 200 Vermonters interested in jobs and roles with the program.
Basil Smikle, a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party and an education consultant, said people of color have been dealing with education equity issues for more than 100 years.
"While Degrees of Freedom won't solve the entire problem, this is an opportunity for young people who don't have privilege, who don't have the financial support to have things like a gap year, to be at an innovative college campus in this great state, to get a sense of what college life is like and to obtain some instruction and get some support and improve their future," he said.
By focusing too much on the allegations, Tonia Kennedy worried time is being taken away from the planning process. She said she started canvassing in support of Democracy Builders a decade ago and continues to explore how to help students of color.
"I guarantee we can please a great number of you given the chance," she said. "I feel we have been shut down before we have been given the opportunity to show what we are made of."
Meg Guilford, a member of the design team, said the biggest problem of higher education is the lack of people of color on campuses in "meaningful, policy-making roles."
Monday's meeting, which included more than 90 participants, began with public comment and included a mix of support for and concern about Democracy Builders.
Alice Grossman, a graduate of Marlboro College and a retired high school teacher, described being "very disturbed" while reading the Black N Brown at DP posts.
"It seemed more like a prison or military school than a high school," she said.
Former students later disputed that characterization and allegations of racism. Some told stories about their success and respect for the programming.
Shakira O'Kane, who worked as a counselor at Democracy Prep, said she stands in solidarity with the students who raised the allegations and attended the meeting to put "a face and a name to what has been mischaracterized as an anonymous, cancel-culture movement."
"My hope is there is no more energy put towards discussing that and trying to discredit the hundreds of students, staff and families," O'Kane said, calling for more focus to be put on accountability and a plan moving forward with an anti-racist framework that includes more than just having people of color on the board and "in the front on the outset."
Lissa Harris, a member of the Marlboro elementary school board and the Coalition for Black and Brown Students in Marlboro, presented a proposal for at least two Marlboro residents to serve on the board and be chosen by the Select Board; the student and faculty handbook to be posted on the group's website and be accessible to the public; annual monetary reparations to be given to families associated with Black N Brown at DP; budgets to be available to the public for the first five years of operations; transparency about funding sources, structures for input, student and staff recruitment, growth and sustainability plans; and a description of Andrew's role and an evaluation process from the group's board of trustees. She said the coalition was created in response to the allegations and is actively engaging with former United States Education Secretary Diane Ravitch and the Network for Public Education advocacy group.
Harris wants the coalition to work with the team developing Degrees of Freedom.
"For us, it was never about stopping the sale," she told the Reformer. "It would have been nice to slow the sale down so we could have these conversations with the leadership team."
Harris said until local news articles came out, members of the coalition were unaware Andrew intended to have a board with a majority being Black, brown and Indigenous people and to recruit in similar ways for staff and faculty. She recalled Andrew and another white person attending a special school board meeting in June, where she questioned measures of success Degrees of Freedom would use and how families and students could provide input as the program is being designed because she was aware of some stories coming out of Democracy Prep.
On July 1, local officials received an email detailing what Harris described as "some really heartbreaking testimony from folks who experienced some severe abuse at Democracy Prep." She said she encouraged fellow school board members to issue a statement standing in solidarity with Black N Brown at DP and urging the Attorney General's Office to investigate, but they did not feel it was necessary at the time.
On Monday, the AGO released a notice of non-objection regarding the sale of the campus and the merger of Marlboro College with Emerson College of Boston but it did not mention the allegations. Harris said she sent a couple of letters to the office.
"I think a lot of conversations still need to be had," she told the Reformer. "I think for the Democracy Builders leadership team to have the support of the town or the support of at least the coalition, they have a lot of things they need to answer to including how they feel about the requests we made? Do they agree these are things they can share with us? And how do they want to start that conversation?"
Liz Greco, a teacher at the local elementary school, objects to the sale but said that could change depending on measures taken to hold program leaders accountable to ensure no further harm is done to students.
Kiah Morris, movement politics director for Rights & Democracy and former state representative for Bennington, worried about the potential for oppressive practices within the new program.
Adrian Segar of Marlboro, who tried to stop the merger and sale of the campus, raised concerns about not being able to see tax returns for nonprofits run by Andrew since 2016.
A representative from Black N Brown at DP who did not share her name said her group has only asked for accountability.
"Accountability is never easy work but it's necessary for all of us to be better in order to improve ourselves and our society," she said. "The burden of proof often falls on the victims. Is it fair? Absolutely not. But it's a reality the collective has acknowledged from the beginning."
She called for an investigation into Andrew, Democracy Builders and its financial viability. She said her group is willing to engage with the Democracy Builders in the future.
Aaron Walsh of Marlboro said he is part of a group of less vocal members of the community wanting to welcome a new entity to town and begin a healing process after the closure of Marlboro College.
"I believe on both sides it has not been an equal hearing or equal listening," he said. "I believe he [Andrew] has things to atone for but I believe our town does too."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.