Formerly Director of Multicultural Student Affairs at Saint Michael’s College in Burlington, Vermont, and then principal of Lee Academy, a public elementary school in Dorchester, MA, Kyle is now Director of the Center for Service and Civic Engagement at Champlain College in Burlington. A graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities, he’s passionate about equity and access for all students in all levels of education, regardless of race or socio-economic status.
I grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, and initially came to Vermont for the same reason a lot of people do—to be a ski bum. After graduating with an MBA in Finance in 1991, I worked for a Wall Street firm for a few years and on vacations I would come skiing in Vermont. So when I quit Wall Street—which just never clicked with me—I had some time on my hands to figure out, what next? For a couple of seasons, I just hung out at Mad River Glen working and skiing.
The second winter my girlfriend – now my wife, Christine – was with me, and at the end of the season, I proposed. Shortly thereafter, Saint Michael’s College in Burlington had an open position for an admissions counselor to recruit students of color and I thought higher education might suit me. I applied for and got the job. That was ‘95. We bought a house in the Mad River Valley and settled down, had children. As outdoors people, we loved it.
Eventually I became Director of Multicultural Affairs. The job was very good to me. I had a lot of autonomy. My main responsibility was to support ALANA students but teaching, coaching, and temperament gave me access to a wider variety of the student body. But for every ALANA student that makes it to someplace like Saint Michael’s, there are hundreds who don’t. I found I was more interested in working with that population.
Additionally, since my wife is white and my kids are bi-racial, we wanted to expose the kids to greater diversity. I found out about a fast track principal training program and M.A. in Education through UMass Boston. After an intense internship, I became principal of Lee Academy in Dorchester, MA, in 2004.
We loved it, and developed some wonderful relationships, but it was a tough neighborhood. There were homicides within half a mile of our house. We didn’t feel comfortable letting our sons get on their bikes and go. We had to evaluate things. That was where there was work I wanted to do, but it wasn’t fair to our sons. And then there’s jockeying for good schools, the cost of housing, and the whole “keeping up with the Joneses.”
It’s funny how a new perspective gives you new insight into an old one. We were looking for a way to ease the pressure, and Vermont during that time had continued to diversify. We felt we had done a lot of work exposing our kids to an alternative. So when my wife’s former graphic design firm called her back, we were ready to move.
I had a nice conversation with Saint Michael’s about some job possibilities, but my hunger was to continue working with a lower income population. The Champlain job came along, which was perfect. It’s all about service and civic responsibility, developing partnerships, getting kids out into the community. Professionally, it’s been great.
I’m driven by new people and experiences—that’s what stimulates me. If you’re driven by the solidarity of groups, then you might have to look a little harder in Vermont. Of course it’s not Utopia, but is any place? Ask yourself: What are your priorities? Okay, so you’re not going to go to a nightclub where there’ll be a lot of black folks. But there are other charms here.
And honestly, one of the places I’ve least experienced racism has been in Vermont. For my money, Burlington—the state’s largest city—is one of the more attractive places. It’s a very manageable city, with good education, linguistic differences, growing racial diversity. There are very few places that achieve that kind of equilibrium.
When I first came to Vermont, diversity consisted mostly of what I now call the “old guard”—people of color, largely African American—who had come in the 1970s and ‘80s. There was no critical mass and many of them met resistance. They didn’t have a black hairdresser, or a place to get southern cooking when they wanted it. There was reason to complain about many things then. Flash forward to today. It’s markedly different for the new generation of people of color. They generally want to be here, they’re often fleeing congested cities. They aren’t wearing rose-colored glasses, but they’re benefiting from many of the changes fought for by the “old guard.”
My own boys—ages 7, 9, and 10—seem comfortable with being bi-racial, and my wife and I certainly talk openly with them about it. But I watch how the world constructs them, and it does sometimes depend on which parent they’re with. Dorchester was 95 percent black and multicultural; they were steeped in black culture. Very subtly, though, when we moved back to Vermont, they tucked away part of what they’d absorbed there. They’ve adapted to life in Vermont and they enjoy the freedom. They’ve grown in other ways.
Race is a very complex, multi-layered, nuanced thing today, which in some ways makes it more challenging. But we want to let our boys develop for themselves what their identity is. We’ll be there as a resource and provide positive models—and, fortunately, they have significant access to diversity because of my job—but ultimately it’s their life. And I think Vermont is a place that will allow them the freedom to develop healthy selves.