Celebrating diversity, opening conversations

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BRATTLEBORO — For Mikaela Simms, diversity coordinator for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, Diversity Day is about opening up conversations.

"We don't know what we don't know," she said. "In school, it's important that it's relatable to everyone."

Diversity Day has been a staple at Brattleboro Union High School since 1998, Simms said. Eventually, it extended to every school in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. This year's Diversity Day will be bigger and more inclusive than before, Robin Morgan, a Brattleboro School Board member, said. The event will be held Friday, 5 to 8 p.m., on Elliot Street between the Harmony Parking Lot and Main Street.

Though racial diversity is a component of Diversity Day, Simms said the school is interested in encouraging people to be open about different experiences.

Each year a theme is chosen for diversity day; last year it was water justice. The idea that everyone deserves access to water is something everyone can get behind, Morgan said. This year the theme is solidarity.

"Every community needs solidarity," Simms said. She said she wants solidarity, which can be both simple and complex, to be accessible to first-graders.

At schools, there are different workshops and activities students can participate in. Simms said the activities aren't mandatory.

At the end of the day, everyone attends an assembly.

In 2008, Simms said, the conversation became more urgent. A group of students started calling themselves "N----- Hanging Redneck Association." Other racist incidents started to occur in the community too, Simms said. That's when Diversity Day became a community event. A press release from the town of Brattleboro said, "in February of 2009, the Racial Issues Steering Committee organized a FutureSearch conference under the theme envisioning a community free of prejudice and discrimination." The celebration gradually retreated back into the school, Simms said, until this year.

Racial inclusivity has been a big discussion for the town of Brattleboro in recent years, after Curtiss Reed, executive director at Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, asked during a 2016 Select Board candidate forum what candidates intended to do about the lack of racial diversity within the town's employee roster. Following the question, Town Manager Peter Elwell put together an assessment of the work being done about diversity in Brattleboro. He also started cataloging efforts the town was making to be more inclusive. Elwell attended a number of workshops and joined some committees. This year the town has put money for a human resource professional in the budget. Part of the job involves making the town a more attractive place to work for all races. The town's involvement in Diversity Day, Elwell said, is "part of our overall commitment to supporting racial and social equity."

Local businesses and nonprofits are also in on the event.

Erin Scaggs, co-owner of Elliot Street Fish, Chips & More, started rallying business owners after Morgan reached out to her. Scaggs wasn't familiar with Diversity Day before but she's a member of the Brattleboro Downtown Alliance and has thrown a few Elliot Street Block Parties. "A large part of our business is community engagement," she said. Her role in Diversity Day was, "really just trying to create positive experiences downtown," she said. She likes the theme of solidarity because it jives with her goals. To her, it's all about community and connection. "We all have many pieces of ourselves," she said. "We are connected, there's strength in that."

Other restaurants she's rallied are Hazel, Twin Flame Taqueria, Elliot Street Fish and Chips, Duo, Indo-American Grocery, and Sweet Miri's. Everyone's Books, HandKnits and Altiplano are also participating.

Some businesses will be holding special activities. At Elliot Street Fish, Chips & More, Scaggs said, there will be rock painting. People will be able to paint positive messages on rocks and place them around town. HandKnits is making bracelets to celebrate community.

Bratt Rock, The Women's Action Team, Youth 4 Change, The Root Social Justice Center, Kids PLAYce, Mother Up, Local Love Brigade and Brooks Memorial Library will also be at the event. Moxie and Oak Grove Blues Groove will be playing at the event and Cai Xi will be holding tai chi demonstrations.

Within the school, Diversity Day has taken on a greater meaning for students of color, Simms said.

On April 2, three Brattleboro Area Middle School students — Diamond Bedward, Kia Adams and Mya Satchell — presented their case to the School Board for why they believed the school should hang a Black Lives Matter flag starting on Diversity Day.

"We're trying to do this so we feel more represented in our school and more welcome," Satchell said. "We feel, kind of, uncomfortable or different in certain situations. Especially living in Vermont, it's a very non-colored culture."

Simms said it's nice for students to "see themselves in the curriculum highlighted, and in ways where they don't have to be educating."

Morgan, whose oldest child is 9 and attends Academy School, said that as a parent she hears that racism is still a problem in Brattleboro schools. She hears about racial slurs being talked about on the bus, and she's seen outdated books in some of the schools that give biased versions of history.

"We feel like we're less respected or excluded in certain situations and sometimes disciplined differently than people who are not of color," Satchell said at the school board meeting.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.


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