Updated: Aug 5, 2020
Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) deserve to hear their elected leaders, neighbors and friends unequivocally say their lives matter and do more than simply make a statement. Black Lives Matter. Brown lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. This statement is powerful and important because it names the human struggle to grapple with racism, systemic violence and the oppression of BIPOC people for generations in this country. As a candidate for elected office, I want to plainly say I believe Black Lives Matter.
In Vermont schools, our curriculum minimally reflects our country’s entire history and culture as it relates to people of color. This is to the detriment of all students. Students of color in Burlington make up about ⅓ of the student population, yet only 1 in 5 enroll in AP or Honors courses. Burlington students of color also face disproportionate rates of discipline. In 2017-2018, 28% of Black students received in-school suspensions although they only account for 14% of the total student population. Our students need us to understand where bias exists in our schools, how it creates racial disparity and then change policies, practices and expectations of school leaders to remedy these disparities.
When COVID hit Vermont, the Department of Health did not capture data on race when tracking cases. Once data was collected, it revealed Black and Latinx Vermonters had the highest number of positive cases of any racial group in Vermont. The reasons point to discrepancies in our healthcare system, including access to care, discrimination when accessing care by providers, and a higher likelihood of working front-line, essential jobs putting them at a greater risk of exposure to COVID.
This week, the City of Burlington released a study where Black people were 3.7 times more likely than white people to be arrested by the Burlington police department, with a similar disparity for traffic stops.
We are living through a historic time where more people than ever before, especially white people, are aware that racism exists not only as individual acts of bias and hate, but within our institutions such as schools, government, employers, health care and the criminal justice system. We must address the harm done to BIPOC people by taking tangible steps such as ones listed below. We must understand the disparities and inequities facing BIPOC every day in these institutions. There are many small and large steps we can take as elected leaders to begin to redress the harm.
When we look at the facts in our state, we share the same challenges faced by many other places in this country, despite our population size and limited racial diversity statewide. It is important to note, about 18% of Burlingtonians identify as a BIPOC. In 2020, it is not acceptable to say racism does not exist in Vermont because we have such a small percentage of people of color compared to the total population. Racism exists regardless of who is in the room. We also have an opportunity to set funding and program priorities within the state that strategically align our resources to better support efforts to keep everyone in our communities safe.
In Vermont, I believe elected leaders must:
Acknowledge when policy discussions involve mostly white people and consciously bring BIPOC into policy making rooms. White leaders must then listen, learn and respond to what BIPOC leaders say to begin to address racism in Vermont.
Collect and use data to inform policy making regarding the racial disparities in our health care, education and economic development systems.
Work to address racial disparities within the criminal justice system, including bias in police departments, sheriff departments and the state police, but also acknowledge racism is not isolated within the criminal justice system.
Examine the FY21 and FY22 state budgets as they relate to the Vermont State Police’s operating budget and reallocate 20% of their funding to reinvest in restorative and community justice programs, mental health crisis response services, and economic development for BIPOC communities. This investment shifts money to programs better able to support community safety in certain scenarios and reallocates resources to improve the lives of BIPOC people. A 2017 study in the academic journal Nature found that decreasing proactive policing reduces major crimes. Large cities like Minneapolis and New York are reexamining public safety budgets and how these dollars are spent to better align with community safety and addressing racial bias within the system.
Adopt the recommendations of the Agency of Education’s Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group to critically update school curriculum to decenter whiteness.
Require anti-bias and anti racism training for all legislators, statewide elected leaders, school board members, and selectboard members. We cannot leave local communities to navigate the complexities of understanding racism on their own. We can at least start with supporting local leaders to better understand their bias and how that impacts local decision making and, thus, the lives of people in their communities.
On an individual level, I believe white people like myself must consistently work to unlearn the white-dominant history of our country. We must learn to recognize bias in our everyday encounters, name it and interrupt it. We must change our language and phrases that perpetuate racist concepts of BIPOC people. We must also practice calling in and calling out our friends, family, and co-workers to do better.
As a white community leader, I will show up in community spaces as an active ally. I will use my privilege to push conversations in policy rooms to address inequities and disparities in state government and laws. Most importantly, I will work in community with BIPOC to follow their leadership on setting priorities for our state to address racism and hold myself accountable when I misstep or remain ignorant in understanding the complexities of racism in Vermont.
The work ahead is about recognizing and enacting changes to affirm Black Lives Matter. It is about saving lives and creating healthier outcomes. Vermont is not immune to racism. It is our collective responsibility to examine our communities, state government, and other institutions to work for a more equitable, just, and safe Vermont.
¹Grace Elletson, May 20, 2020, New Data Shows COVID-19 Racial Disparities in Vermont. https://vtdigger.org/2020/05/20/new-data-shows-covid-19-racial-disparities-in-vermont/
²Aidan Quingley, Black Burlingtonians Arrested at Much Higher Rate than White Residents, July 28, 2020, https://vtdigger.org/2020/07/28/black-burlingtonians-arrested-at-much-higher-rate-than-white-residents-report-shows/
³City of Burlington, 2019 Equity Report. https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/sites/default/files/tiles/City%20of%20Burlington%202019%20EQUITY%20REPORT_FINAL.pdf
⁴Christopher M. Sullivan and Zachary P. O’Keeffe, Evidence that Curtailing Proactive Policing Can Reduce Major Crime,” Nature, September 25, 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0211-5.