Burlington City Councilor

Burlington

Director of State Relations at the University of Vermont and a Burlington City Councilor, Clarence has held a fascinating variety of jobs during his time in Vermont. A former Development Underwriter at Vermont Housing Finance Agency, Director of Homeownership Programs at Central Vermont Community Land Trust, and Vice President and State Manager at First American Title Insurance Company, he started his professional career as a Scheduler and Outreach Assistant in the Office of then-Congressman, now Senator, Bernard Sanders. He is a graduate of Norwich University, a military college, in Northfield, Vermont.

 I come from a family whereby if you‘re going to do something, you just do it. That‘s how I came to Vermont—by jumping in with both feet first, kind of on a whim. After joining the military post-high school, I was accepted to a couple military academies. I landed at Norwich primarily because it was close to my Mom in New York. It gave me the chance to commute back and forth on breaks. And then I stayed because of good jobs. I started putting roots down and built a community of friends.

The "whitest state" demographic wasn‘t something that registered with me before I came, and it didn‘t become an issue once I got up here. Norwich had its own international community, and I was busy with school. The issue of race wasn‘t in the forefront of my mind. I‘m an easily adaptable person. You could plunk me down anywhere and I‘d be okay. Although, I will say, it‘s not a common thing for a person of West Indian descent—my family‘s from Antigua—to live in one of the coldest areas of the country!

Vermont‘s an unusual place. A lot of liberal-minded people are here—many that were active in the Civil Rights Movement—but then there are rural, remote communities where some residents maybe have never seen a person of any color. I personally have not experienced overt racism in Vermont—and I traveled the state with Congressman Sanders—but there is certainly some subtle racism. People will make a comment or joke, or someone will say, ―Can I touch your hair? You look exotic,‖ and don‘t understand why it would be offensive. To me that‘s a ―teachable moment.‖ As a result of my upbringing and military background, I‘m a very direct person. I see it as an opportunity to educate someone and hit it head on.

There are a lot of conversations about diversity here—by people with good intentions. But diversity can‘t be mandated. It will happen when you begin to reach critical mass. In Burlington, there are folks from all over the world—Sudan, Myanmar, Nepal—and the real challenge right now is representation in business, in education. You might have a variety of races in the classroom, but the teacher is white. Educators need to start to reflect the student population. We need to find opportunities to plug people in.

For instance, I was the first black city councilor in Burlington in some time. Burlington had only one African American police officer for a while. You have to ask: Is representation in government, public service, reflective of the community? So there‘s nothing we can check off and say that‘s done. It‘s a process.

At the same time, city issues haven‘t centered around race for me. I made a conscious decision not to be the ―black‖ city councilor because I represent the most diverse district in the city—refugees, French Canadians, Jewish and Italian families, businesses. I didn‘t want to be pigeonholed. Just getting elected was a huge challenge, and I want to serve people where they‘re at, provide solutions to their most pressing problems.

What‘s special about this state is the sense of community. Anyone can get involved in meaningful ways—not just elected office, but the school board, non-profits. The scale is small enough. And then there‘s the environment in Vermont. I‘m an outdoors person. Here you can drive 20 minutes and be in middle of nowhere to go camping, fishing, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing. My level of stress is a lot lower than my peers in other places.

You have to understand what life is like here before you make the choice. Visit first, connect with folks, invest the time. See what you might be getting into—but then don‘t let that stop you. Be adventurous and just do it. My wife and I are both New Yorkers but we‘re really comfortable living here. We‘ve got roots now.

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