Stowe leaders apologize for racial slurs

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Community leaders, including the governor, expressed regret and apologized last week for intolerance and racial insults directed at campers and counselors of color who attended a week-long program earlier this month in Stowe.

In a letter to the camp's director, the local leaders vowed to take concrete steps to make Stowe a more inclusive community. The campers and counselors were targets of racial slurs while attending a program run by Pact, an organization that offers programs for children of color adopted by white parents.

According to parents and the camp's director, Beth Hall, there were at least three incidents — two separate instances of people yelling racial slurs from passing cars and another incident in which a man used a racial slur while campers were at a Stowe mini-golf site.

The signatories offered their "deepest apologies and sincere regret" over the incidents and said they were "deeply saddened and troubled" by what had happened.

"While our community prides itself on our open, inviting and warm welcome to all who take the time to visit, given your experiences, it is clear we have some work to do in that regard. Rest assured, we are committed to addressing intolerance and insensitivity, real or perceived," the letter said in part.

The letter signers included: Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who saw the group during their stay; Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille; Stowe Town Manager Charles Safford; Stowe Select Board Chair William Adams; Amy Morrison, the executive director of the Stowe Area Association; Scot Baraw, vice president at the Stoweflake Resort and Spa, where the 85 families who attended the camp stayed; and Rachel Vandeberg, the owner of the Stowe Golf Park.

The letter — sent to Pact Executive Director Beth Hall and the four Vermont families who attended this year's session — was also signed by Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Michael Schirling and Tourism Commissioner Wendy Knight.

In an interview Friday, Hall said she appreciated the "shock and surprise" Vermonters have expressed, but said that reaction was also indicative of "white privilege." Hall said she hoped Vermonters would be moved to take specific actions to make the community more welcoming.

Hall, who is white, also noted racial intolerance and exclusion were "deeply embedded" and would take time, effort, self-reflection and asking hard questions to turn around.

Separately, Gov. Phil Scott said in a letter this week to the four Vermont families that he was "shocked and saddened" by the incidents, which "turn(ed) what was supposed to be a week of inclusion and community building into a hurtful experience for participants."

He thanked the families for bringing the problems to his attention.

"This incident is unacceptable to me and it is not reflective, at all, of the people of Vermont. I've been clear I do not tolerate hateful, racist or bigoted speech of any kind and certainly not when it's directed at children. Everyone should feel safe and be treated with care and respect in Vermont," Scott wrote.

Scott directed Schirling's agency and others to find ways to promote tolerance, but noted the complexity to the problem.

"There is no easy solution to eliminating hatred or bigotry or eradicating racism, but we must do all we can with consistent leadership and by setting a good example. When embers of hatred, racism and bigotry flare up — and with these recent events in Stowe, it's clear they still do — every elected leader, and indeed every American, has an obligation to stand up to bring people together around our founding belief that all people are created equal. I'm hopeful that over time — with honest debate, leadership and a firm commitment to our moral and democratic values — these embers can be extinguished," Scott said in the letter.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman's chief of staff wrote Hall, saying it was "difficult to witness such actions in a state we love" and that Zuckerman was "hoping to use this as an opportunity to continue pushing the conversation about racial equity and implicit bias."

State and Stowe leaders have asked the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity for help. Scott said a community series on tolerance was planned and discussions are underway about statewide diversity sensitivity training for the tourism industry.

VPFD is a training and consulting service whose mission is to promote Vermont as a desirable destination for business and recreation for people of color.

Hall said a community forum would require residents to be "willing to hear things and not get defensive" and ask themselves potentially difficult questions, including why they have chosen to live in a racially homogenous area and why so few people of color live in their community.

She said the burden should not be on those who feel excluded to fit in; instead she said it was the community's responsibility to create a welcoming atmosphere.

Hall said community actions would speak louder than words. She sighed and then noted the surprised reaction expressed by many was naive.

"I appreciate the response. I feel as if I've heard a lot of shock and surprise and honestly I think that's white privilege itself to be shocked and surprised because 'we' don't experience it. I think it's probably happening every day in Vermont. We were enough people to get it out there," Hall said. "I would love to see this move people to a place where they're not just shocked and horrified, but they're moved to action. So I feel like some people are trying to do that and some people are just shocked and horrified and don't believe that will ever happen again if we went to a different place in Vermont. I think that's naive."

She added: "There have been a number of people who have just straight up apologized and I appreciate that."

Hall, who co-founded Pact in 1991, said the racial intolerance exhibited in Stowe was "fairly stunning" and "particularly harrowing" in her decades of experience. She said racism is prevalent everywhere, but in Stowe the incidents were particularly overt. Hall expressed disappointment only one person expressed concern at the time when a man referred to the campers by a slur at the mini-golf site; she acknowledged the slurs yelled out the car may not have been heard by anyone other than the counselors. However, Hall said "community policing" meant speaking out after the event, too, which she said some were trying to do.

Individuals, Hall said, can take steps to create "an anti-racist, welcoming community." For example, Hall said, she has a "Black Lives Matter" sign in front of her home. Every person of color, she said, takes note of the sign.

Hall said: "I'm white. I don't have to put that sign on my house, so I've gone out of my way to make a statement that I don't have to make because it doesn't impact me personally. I could not put that sign up and just say it privately, but I choose to do that."

Hall has two grown adopted children, a Latina daughter and African-American son.

Pact, based in Oakland, has run annual summer camps in California for 16 years. The Stowe gathering was the second year for a camp on the East Coast. Hall said the group was looking for "alternative sites" for the eastern camp next year. Some parents, she said, will not send their children to the camp next year if it were held again in Stowe because of concerns for their safety.

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