BRATTLEBORO—The most recent federal census data, from 2015, shows that in Brattleboro, 9.6 percent of the population identifies as persons of color: black, Asian, American Indian, Latin or Hispanic, or of more than one race.
But according to data submitted for the town’s Equal Employment Opportunity report, of the 191 full-time, part-time, seasonal, and on-call municipal staff, 100 percent are identified as “white/non-Hispanic.”
At their May 2 meeting, Selectboard members and Town Manager Peter B. Elwell began discussing the range of issues around the racial composition of the town’s workforce.
That conversation boils down to two questions: Is it okay that the town’s employees, including police and fire department staff, do not reflect the area’s racial makeup? And what, if anything, should town officials do about it?
The conversation started a few months before.
At the Feb. 23 Selectboard Candidates’ Forum, Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, posed the first question.
“To what do you attribute the town’s inability to recruit, hire — let alone retain — employees of color, and what will you do to change that?” Reed asked the candidates.
In introducing the agenda item at the May 2 meeting, Selectboard member David Schoales told his colleagues it was at the candidates’ forum where he first learned “the town of Brattleboro has no African-American employees,” he said.
“I didn’t know that,” said Schoales, who requested the item be put on the agenda. “What are we going to do about that? ... It’s not acceptable ... it weakens the community ... and it’s something that needs to be fixed.”
What can be done?
Board Vice-Chair Brandie Starr noted a potential applicant’s hesitation at applying for a job “where they don’t already see themselves physically represented.”
Board member John Allen expressed confusion over the issue and hesitated as he spoke.
“I’ve thought about this a lot, and I just don’t know how to approach it yet, because... I don’t want to sound... but, I don’t know how to word this, and I really want to pick my words carefully. Just because we don’t have an African-American on staff doesn’t mean we’re not diversified,” Allen said.
“I don’t know how to... If we don’t have any other ethnicities in our service, I don’t know how that reflects on us as a town... I think you choose an employee by whoever applies, and if an African-American applies and they’re qualified, I know we would hire them. So I’m having this hard time with this discussion [that] we’re not diversified. I think we are.
“I don’t know where you draw the line between... I don’t know how to say this... going out of your way to hire an African-American, or... so that’s where I’m having this problem in my head. It’s not that I’m not diversified [sic]. It has nothing to do with that. It’s just that, we’re in southern Vermont, I don’t know how else to explain that.”
Board Chair Kate O’Connor noted the diversity challenge goes beyond race. She gave as an example the search for a town manager, noting that among “hundreds” of applicants, only two were women.
Allen said “it seems disingenuous to me” to include in employment listings “women... or... African-Americans are encouraged to apply.”
“That just seems that it’s going in the opposite direction,” he added.
“It might be as easy” as changing how and where the town advertises positions, O’Connor said.
Starr agreed and suggested sending employment listings to different members of the community, such as leaders and organizers like Reed, and Shela Linton at The Root Social Justice Center, and asking them to send the notices to their members and constituents.
“That way we make ... an attempt to speak to an audience we’re possibly not reaching without it being like we’re ... fishing” for specific applicants, Starr said.
Board Clerk Tim Wessel agreed with that approach, noting it brings in members of the community who have connections and expertise board members may lack.
“We can’t be experts in everything,” said Starr, who added, “we have people that know people that they’re trying to get us to reach, so why not utilize them?”
“We’re just casting a wider net,” Starr said.
Elwell agreed. “Even if we weren’t having a diversity conversation, the wider we cast the net, the better off we are. The larger the pools of applicants are, the better chance we have at finding the right person for any given position.”
Allen wasn’t convinced, and Wessel offered a suggestion: “I think you’re reacting to what you maybe feel is an implication of a quota.”
“It kind of sounds that way,” Allen said.
“That was a word we haven’t used yet, and that’s a scary word for a number of reasons,” said Wessel.
“It’s a very scary word!” Allen said.
Wessel noted quotas in employment could put the town in legal jeopardy.
“I think what we’re trying to get at here is, access to the information, people of diverse backgrounds and situations, women, people of color, people of various sexual orientations, knowing that they feel welcome to apply in a town like this... that’s admittedly very white,” he said.
“I know, but how do you do that on a broad spectrum?” Allen said. “I hate to use the word ‘quota’ but it almost feels like we’re doing that — we’re fishing for a quota.”
Making an effort
Referencing the town manager search, Allen said the Selectboard went “across the country,” and suggested the Selectboard conducted as thorough a search as possible for applicants.
When the Selectboard searched for a town manager, if they wanted to hire a woman, they could have shifted recruitment efforts to specifically reach out to women, Schoales said.
Likewise, “if we want to hire African-Americans, and I think we do, they have to know [the jobs] are available, and we have to reach out to them,” he added. “It takes an effort.”
“We’ve got a growing African-American community here in Brattleboro and in southern Vermont, and they are not included in our town employees. We have processes in place and they haven’t succeeded in drawing qualified or unqualified African-American candidates,” Schoales said.
“The idea that we’re in southern Vermont, and we’re all white, and we’re doing the best we can, and we represent our community, and that’s fine, ignores the historical reality of what’s happened to African-Americans over the course of our history,” Schoales said.
He rejected as a myth the idea that “enough time [has gone] by and it’ll all work out and everybody will have the same economic opportunities and have the same social and family capital... those things aren’t true yet. And, time isn’t going to make it happen, and it’s not going to happen when everybody’s hearts are pure and there’s no longer a prejudice.”
Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, Schoales noted, is “not going to happen... if you don’t have bootstraps.”
“This is an historical oppression over hundreds of years. Families were destroyed, people were not given — even in our lifetimes — equal economic opportunities,” so they don’t have the training, structure, or support “that puts them in positions like” those with the town, Schoales said.
“If that’s going to be made better, people that are aware of it have to ... find ways to include” historically marginalized peoples, Schoales said. “I think we need to be purposely and consciously trying to find qualified African-American people for these positions we currently have open,” he added.
“It’s not something that we can just leave alone and somehow it’s going to work itself out,” Schoales said. “If you think, ‘Oh, it’s been 150 years since the Civil War, so it must be some other problem,’ well, the problem is history, and what it’s done to people... and the economic supports they have, and we have to go out of our way to make progress... and to fix that problem.”
“I’m sorry this rubs in your craw, John, or it feels like it’s not fair, or it’s a quota thing, but it is fair, and it’s a thing that needs to be done to make this country whole,” Schoales said.
“And we have to do it, too. It’s not just the places [like cities]... We have to set an example for our kids, our grandkids, and the rest of this community. I feel strongly that we’ve got to do a lot more than just advertise more broadly,” Schoales said.
The audience at the board meeting then gave Schoales a round of applause.
‘Not a social-moral’ issue
In their 1967 examination of systemic racism in the United States, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, civil rights activists and authors Charles V. Hamilton and Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) described the difference between overt individual racism and covert — or institutional — racism.
The latter, they said, consists of “acts by the total white community against the black community,” which are “less overt, far more subtle, [and] less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life.”
Institutional racism, Hamilton and Ture wrote, “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than” individual racist acts, and “[the] society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”
For Reed, the discussion about diversifying the town workforce and the constellation of issues around systemic racism — the type that is subtle or even subliminal — is long overdue.
“David [Schoales] got it right,” said Reed.
“The notion that [diversity in employment] can’t happen because ‘we’re Vermont’ is dangerous and foolhardy,” said Reed. “It’s missing out on increased public service and modeling behavior you want your community at large to exhibit.”
“If you believe in being equitable, reflect that in municipal government. It’s a false narrative [that] black, brown, and Asian people don’t belong or do well in Vermont, or don’t want to come here,” Reed said.
“The reason why this is important is not from a social-moral” stance, said Reed, but in practical, economic terms.
With Vermont — especially Windham County — having a high median age and the second-lowest birthrate in the country (per 2013 National Center for Health Statistics data), “we need people, so why not make this place desirable for black and brown people?” Reed asked.
“There’s a lot of polite conversation, but not a lot of action” toward making it so, he said.
“Our future is tied to our ability to have a workforce that reflects our population,” Reed said. “The town has only been dipping its fishing pole into a white male candidate pool, and John [Allen] doesn’t see that as a problem.”
“Unless the leadership knows where to task people” in their recruitment, “it’s not going to happen,” Reed said. “‘The way it’s always been done’ is going to handicap us over time.”
“We have a very diverse population of young people. Who’s doing recruitment with Brattleboro kids of color? Where are their role models?” Reed asked. “We need to be telegraphing to Brattleboro kids of color that there’s a place for them” here, and they need to see themselves reflected in the municipal workforce, said Reed. “Go into any school: these kids are our future.”
“Making sure that we’re paying attention to inclusion and equity starts with acknowledging there is a demographic shift, and Vermont is not exempt,” Reed said.
The cobbler’s shoes
Reed compared Brattleboro’s municipal employment situation to the old adage, “Don’t look at the shoes of the cobbler.”
He noted the irony of the town employing only white people and the Selectboard wondering what to do about it — meanwhile, his organization, located about a mile from the town offices, helps organizations recruit people of color.
Reed said he saw Elwell earlier this year and said, “if you want to address this, give me a call.”
Reed said Elwell hasn’t called.
“Burlington, Rutland, the Vermont State Police — they made the commitment to ensure their entities reflect a changing demographic” by hiring his nonprofit to help them expand their recruitment and reach minorities, Reed said.
At the Selectboard meeting, Schoales pointed out that “it’s not an unusual thing to do” to pay an organization to help the town recruit applicants, and he noted that the town has paid the Vermont League of Cities and Towns “a couple of thousands of dollars a few times” for the service.
Board Chair Kate O’Connor said it would probably be helpful to get some statistics and information, and she asked Elwell to provide board members with the town’s current processes for recruitment and hiring, including how the town welcomes diverse applicants.
In a conversation with The Commons, O’Connor explained how hiring works on the municipal level: the Selectboard hires the town manager, who hires department heads, who in turn are responsible for hiring their staff.
How a department head searches for applicants “varies from department to department, position to position,” Elwell told The Commons. Although there isn’t “one standard way to do it,” Elwell said, he hopes this process will prompt department heads to take “the good actions by some departments to others.”
He noted that the Brattleboro Police Department has reached out to areas with a higher minority population, including attending a job fair geared toward people of color.
“We may have to ask people in other towns” to learn how they’re getting a more diverse pool of applicants, O’Connor said. “Even if you say you’re going to do it, the hard part is actually doing it.”
“There are organizations serving [...] people of color and other protected groups,” said Elwell, and “increased collaboration is beneficial.”
Elwell said the town is committed to doing “whatever we can do to raise awareness of minorities and other populations... consistent with the Equal Employment Opportunities [parameters].”
He added that Town Attorney Robert Fisher “will work with us on that to make sure the steps are legally defendable with federal and state EEO laws.”
O’Connor said the Selectboard would consider hiring consultants, like the Vermont Partnership, because “we can’t just talk among ourselves.”
“I think we have to be honest with ourselves, and it won’t be easy, so we have to bring in someone to help,” O’Connor said.
She expressed confidence that her colleagues on the board, and Elwell, are “willing to do it.”
Courage and opportunity
“I think John [Allen] is struggling with this in ways that are very human. It really challenges his view of what reality is. There’s a sort of amount of courage in him to speak publicly about this,” Reed said. “This questioning really provides an opportunity for some education.”
“If there’s no conspicuous leadership, the opportunity” to make the town’s recruitment practices more inclusive “will be squandered,” Reed said.
And, “if there’s nobody on the Selectboard who can analyze these missed opportunities, it supports John’s statement: We’re doing all we can do,” Reed added.
O’Connor mentioned the June 6 Selectboard meeting as the next opportunity to address this topic in open meeting, but that it will not be the last.
“This will be a multi-meeting discussion. We’re really good, as a board, at talking through things until we find a solution.”
“I’m hopeful we can get a plan in place,” she said.
Reed hoped that O’Connor, rather than asking Elwell to bring the Selectboard information on the town’s current recruitment practices, would have asked the town manager to return to the Selectboard “a plan to increase the applicant pool to bring in more people of color.”
“It wasn’t my intent, calling the town racist,” Reed said, but, he added, town officials need to make it clear that if you’re a person of color, a woman, or a person with disabilities, “there’s a place for you in municipal government.”