Partnering up to counter racism
"Thank you all," Karen Richards, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, told attendees of a forum about addressing racial disparities, held Nov. 20 at the Brooks Memorial Library. "That was really a lot of work and a lot of important information that's going to be really helpful for us to capture going forward."
The forum looked at racial disparities within education, labor and employment, housing, health care and economic development. Part of Act 54, which was approved by the Vermont Legislature during the last legislative session, involves creating strategies to improve these systems.
Vermont Assistant Attorney General David Scherr said another panel is working on racial discrimination in criminal and juvenile justice systems. The group meets monthly.
Ideas generated at forums will be presented to the Joint Justice Oversight Committee. Richards suggested attendees come up with proposals that could be measured with data.
"That's a much easier thing for us to try and analyze," she said.
Attendees want to see more done to retain and hire educators of color. Unconscious bias, whiteness of school staff and community, implicit racism and white supremacy were cited as reasons more people of color do not have jobs in education in Vermont. To improve that, attendees said a special student-loan forgiveness package could be offered and recruitment efforts could be made.
Attendees also want curricula to be more representational to diverse populations. Teachers could be trained with "culturally responsive" and social justice-based material while the Vermont Agency of Education could mandate certain curricula, attendees said.
Not enough "quality affordable housing" is available, attendees agreed, blaming discrimination among private landlords and people of color not being well represented. To change that, attendees said government workers and the media could work with landlord networks and activists.
"In this area, there's a landlord breakfast I just learned about," said Brenda Siegel, founder of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival.
Having a state-appointed public advocate for housing could help people in their searches for residences. Also proposed was a rating system for landlords to reveal racist practices via online reviews.
Attendees said employers should address unwelcoming environments. They thought awareness through training workshops on "white privilege" and "micro-aggressions" could help.
For economic development, attendees noted a lack of businesses in Vermont owned by people of color and "a need to expand recruitment efforts." They see an opportunity for businesses, colleges, state departments and social service organizations to work together on marketing. To create more culturally diverse partnerships, companies owned by minorities in other states could be introduced to products made in Vermont.
Attendees called for health-care groups to explore the relationship between racism and health-related issues, and how discrimination plays a role in the service patients receive. Recruiting and retaining people of color in the medical field was another recommendation.
Brattleboro Town School Board and Select Board member David Schoales suggested people "implement" anything they heard that sounded good at the forum.
"I feel like it's part of white culture to say, 'We'll do this if we can find the funding,'" added Donna Macomber, executive director of the Women's Freedom Center. "I think the essential need is that we recognize that the biggest barriers are always attitudinal."
Sheila Linton, of the Root Social Justice Center, said she was "really kind of stuck" when first reading responses to topics at the forum.
"My first thought is racism impacts white folks, too," Linton said. "So does white supremacy. So when we only focus on people of color, sometimes it's like, 'Oh, poor them.' We can't rise up unless we all rise up together."
Julie Cunningham, executive director of Families First, said local groups could help meet the goals of Act 54.
"We are your partners so we will do whatever we can to keep advancing this legislation," she told Richards and Scherr. "Because as we're all saying, it's absolutely vital for all of us."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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