co-founder Good News Garage

Winooski

Hal Colston, who lives in Winooski, just outside Burlington, is the co-founder of Good News Garage, a program of Lutheran Social Services. The nationally-recognized organization—including an appearance by Hal on Oprah last year—fixes up donated vehicles and sells them at a reasonable cost to low-income families. Most recently, Hal left GNG to found the community action organization, NeighborKeepers.

 I believe in speaking truth to power: There are always going to be people in Vermont who may not be comfortable changing to include you. But the human scale makes this place special. There are as many people living in some Philadelphia neighborhoods as in the whole state of Vermont! There’s no city craziness here. You can easily get involved and it only takes a handful of people to change things.

Until recently, Vermont didn’t collect data correlating police stops and race. But after I published an op-ed about driving while black in the second-whitest state, my story inspired a group of law enforcement folks, community advocates, and people of color to do something. Last January, we began collecting and analyzing data on stops.

On a smaller scale, when our son was in kindergarten we had a parent-teacher conference during a time when the class was doing a series on “world cultures.” There were posters up of kids from all over the world—but none of color! We brought it up to the teacher and she said, “Oh, you’re right!” She went out and bought new posters because she was willing to admit, “I can do this differently.”

So, yes, we’ve experienced racism, but a lot of it has been founded on ignorance. When we arrived in 1989, there were less than 2,000 blacks in the whole state. It’s different now, but at that point, many Vermonters had never seen a person of color, much less worked or conversed with one. It was new and novel.

As Vermont was for us. I had gotten a job offer so my wife, Bev, and I came up to check things out. Love at first sight! But when I accepted the job, our friends in Philly freaked. “Why? Why? Why?” they all said. I couldn’t really answer them except to say, “I’m not sure but believe we’ll find out when we get there.” We knew were supposed to come. And we were right.

There’s no question that race disparities exist—the prison population, kids of color being more vulnerable to at-risk behaviors in schools, an under-enforced state harassment law. Outside of Chittenden County, finding a barber or hairdresser can be tough.

But the quality of life weighs out. My wife and I go visit cities and can’t wait to get back home where we know it’s safe, where there’s good air and water, and the stress level is low. Most of all, it’s knowing you’re part of a community where you can make a difference.

It’s an interesting time to be here. Because of the recent influx of people of color, we’re going through changes the rest of the country went through in the ‘60s. As a result, there’s a lot of talk about “diversity.” Sometimes that word is used to avoid talking about the “r” word, so I always add the word inclusion. Everyone’s got to be at the table to turn things around having to do with racism and white privilege.

Organizations like NeighborKeepers foster inclusiveness by bringing people together to be in community with others different from them. Over time—not overnight—they learn to befriend each other, and that changes everyone’s outlook. It’s infectious.

When we first came here, we knew we were heading into the frontier, but we said let’s give it a shot, we can be trailblazers if we have to be. I still feel that way. There’s a lot going on, opportunities to plug in and shape the community for the better. That’s why I want to stick around. We have the potential to do it right up here.

New to the state? Hal suggests checking in with these folks:

Patrick Brown, Director of the Greater Burlington Multicultural Office. “He’s the kind of guy that will be walking down the street, see an African American he doesn’t recognize, and go up and introduce himself. He’s ended up convincing people to move here.”
Curtiss Reed, Jr., Director of the statewide organization Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity out of Brattleboro. Hal calls him a “great resource.”

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