Executive Director, Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity
Brattleboro, Windham County
What brought you to the State and the region? or If you were born here, what keeps you here?
A black college buddy of mine who lived in Newfane, VT, invited me up for cross country skiing. The year was 1978, and as luck would have it, the train dropped me off in Brattleboro at 2:00am, in the middle of what was a snow storm of epic proportions. I disembarked the train with two others, and we trudged up the hill in knee deep snow to Dunkin Donuts. I sat in Dunkin Donuts for nearly 36 hours before the roads were clear enough for him to make his way to Brattleboro to retrieve me. For three weeks we ate, drank, and skied in picture postcard perfect Vermont, at the end of which I had fallen in love with the state. By the summer of 1979, with a backpack and no job I had relocated to Vermont from St. Louis, MO.
What are the best things about living in this state and region?
Four things have kept me here in Vermont: the range and accessibility of outdoor recreational activities (bicycling, skiing, hiking, canoeing, etc.); the environmental consciousness of Vermonters that have kept the water and air clean and an uncluttered landscape; a sense of community that only small towns can provide; and the ease with which one can address issues and be heard in the political arena.
However, as the father of three black children the best thing about living in Vermont is that it is a very safe place to live. In 2015, there was only one police shooting that resulted in the death of a resident, and that person was white. Another benefit living in rural Vermont is that if you want a bit of city life, New York City and Montreal are four hours away, Boston 2.5 hours away, and for those in need of a coastal fix, the Atlantic seacoast is two hours away from my town of Brattleboro.
One of our best kept secrets is the vast array of performing and cultural arts events. Off Broadway plays: Fences, Seven, Black Angels over Tuskegee. Dance: Alvin Ailey, STOMP. Lots of major jazz artists perform at the Flynn Theater in Burlington and the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro. If you scratch beneath the surface you will find exhibits, lectures, and film that celebrate black life in the most unlikely places. Finally there is recognition by state government of the important role African Americans have played and continue to play in Vermont’s history through the Vermont African American Heritage Trail.
What are the challenges of living here?
Living in paradise can at times be pricey: property taxes are high, fuel and snow removal for the long winter can get out of hand, gas and sometimes a hotel for travel to experience a cultural event, and seasonal spikes in food prices when local produce is out of season. For me, Vermont is a place to be lived outdoors. If I was the sedentary, coach potato type I just might go stir crazy. However, by far the greatest challenge has been advocating for a high quality education on behalf of my three children. Quality includes a curriculum that is multicultural; a school climate that not only recognizes and respects diversity but is inclusive; and educators and administrators trained to be self-aware in their own implicit biases and to mitigate the effects of bias In decision making with respect to my children and by extension all children. My two older children are successful college students, my youngest is a junior in high school.
In your experience, what is it like for a person of color to live and work here?
Wherever you live on the planet about 15% of the people you encounter regardless of their social identity will be knuckleheads. Vermont is no different-we have our share of racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, etc. knuckleheads. Clean air and water, access to my favorite outdoor recreations, and small town life in a beautiful state weighed heavily the calculus of my decision to move and remain here since 1979. And while the calculus for each person is different it is important to know your weighed variables
.Do you experience change? Are things here getting better, staying the same, or growing worse?
I tend to look at the glass three quarters full, rather than half empty. The challenges here are no different than anywhere else in the nation. I believe the comparative advantage Vermont has in addressing its social and economic challenges is its small size and people willing to work together to make this place better for everyone and not just a select few. When I arrived in 1979, I might have felt somewhat like a pioneer with the literal handful of other black folk in Windham County. Back then, there was no Internet or social media (can you imagine?), no reasonably priced overnight delivery, no black skin and hair care products in stores, no barber who could cut hair, and few entertainment options. On balance, I would have to say that life here has gotten much better, but then again I am the eternal optimist.