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Brenda Lynn Siegel

The Black Lives Matter flag aloft at Montpelier High School.

Voices / Viewpoint

Powerful and right

‘I felt sickness that we even needed to raise a Black Lives Matter flag to tell people that their lives matter, that their history matters, that who they are matters. And yet, it is necessary and should be flying at every high school across Vermont and across the country.’

Brenda Lynn Siegel is artistic/executive director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival and an activist in the Windham County area and around the state, participating in lobbying, resistance actions, and planning for policy change.

Newfane

On Feb. 1, I attended the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School. It seemed like it would be a historic moment, and I wanted to stand in solidarity with this amazing youth-led action.

I arrived a bit early and had a chance to observe as others showed up: students from elementary to college age, legislators, school-board members, people from the community and from across the state.

I began to feel the impact of the event and the power of these youth as we stood in wait. This community had gotten behind a youth-led action and youth of color were supported in taking the lead. This in and of itself was powerful.

Over the loudspeaker came the principal’s voice telling the students that they would be going outside to raise the flag for approximately 15 minutes; they then would have time to process the ceremony and return to class.

The students began to file outside. As they arrived, you could hear excitement from some; others stood in silence. I looked on as the youth from the Racial Justice Alliance — the students who organized the event — began to file to the front.

They led the ceremony.

They spoke powerful words about the history of Black people being left out of their education, and they demanded change.

They were powerful and right.

* * *

As I watched them speak, I had a confusing mixture of feelings.

I felt admiration for these students and the city of Montpelier.

I felt sickness that we even needed to raise a Black Lives Matter flag to tell people that their lives matter, that their history matters, that who they are matters.

And yet, it is necessary and should be flying at every high school across Vermont and across the country.

We in this country and in this state have marginalized Black people through our schools, through our prison system, and through everyday events in our society.

This only changes when we allow those who are marginalized to lead. This only changes when we examine our own privilege. This only changes when we recognize that no matter how much we support the change, if we don’t do the work within ourselves, the change will never happen.

No matter who we are, no matter how much work we have done to support racial and social justice, if we are white people in this country, we have benefited from white privilege.

We have been part of the problem. We exhibit microaggressions and implicit bias, we have made mistakes, and we have to check that in order to ever make change.

* * *

In the last several years, I have begun to check in with myself, first removing myself from situations I didn’t think were appropriate and eventually learning to speak up, to not be a bystander.

I had to examine where I still had work to do and, as a white person in this country, I do so every day.

Any person who believes this is not them, any person who sees the problem of racism as “fixed” or “over” in this country, is neither doing the work nor paying attention.

We need to recognize that we are hurting our children, our friends and, for some of us, our family. We can no longer stand by and allow this — we have to stand up and change it.

We have to show up over and over and over again if we ever want to see a time of true equality in this country and in this state.

Even for those of us who have experienced some bias, we don’t understand the complexities in the lives of people of color in this state. We cannot imagine the extreme level of bias and stigma that they experience.

I myself am Jewish; I have experienced anti-Semitism for all of my life in Vermont and certainly more since Twitler became president. I have also had prejudice thrown at me as a woman and single mom, and I have been denied apartments, jobs, and more.

However, my experience does not absolve me of my responsibility to examine my privilege every day when I wake up. If I am not doing that, then I am not making the world a better place.

* * *

As I stood there and watched these amazing kids take their power, I felt the ever-present rush of my privilege.

The principal at the school spoke eloquently of implicit bias and the need to make sure that our students know that they matter. He spoke of his commitment to do the work, to make the necessary changes that lead to a more-inclusive school and, ultimately, a more-inclusive society.

As I listened to him, I was overwhelmed with emotion as this experience sat in stark contrast to the fight that our community in Brattleboro had recently had with the school administration to keep the diversity coordinator position.

Here was one district fighting for equity, doing the work to make the change, in contrast to another that does not yet fully understand.

This contrast makes it ever so clear why every high school in Vermont should be flying the Black Lives Matter flag. We should have a daily reminder that we are not there yet and that it is imperative that we do the work to get there.

We owe this to our children. I owe this to my dear friend, Shela Linton, and her family, whom I grew up with. I did not know what she was experiencing daily.

We owe this to our grandparents and great-grandparents who fought to make the world a better place.

To all of them, we must fully commit to this fight, including doing the work within ourselves.

* * *

As the flag began to rise, Black and Brown students took turns bringing it up the flagpole. The students had asked for silence; there was silence.

My eyes filled with tears both because of the power in this moment and in these youth and for the long, painful history of the harm we have caused people of color in our society.

As the flag reached the top, the crowd erupted in cheers.

Then a young girl began to sing “We Shall Overcome,” inviting the crowd to join in.

In this moment, I felt my friends of color fighting for their basic rights.

I felt my grandfather as he wrote the screenplay to Roots, hoping to make change.

I felt my great Uncle Arthur as he was famously carried out of a courtroom as an attorney while fighting for civil rights, hoping to make change.

In this moment, I felt my grandmother in tears telling me how friends of hers were treated.

In this moment, I felt my mom singing this same song with me when I was a kid and me believing that was how we all became equal and not realizing that we all were not yet equal.

In this moment, I felt the reality that though I had been taught to stand up, the lesson that we are not there yet was missing, as it has been for all of us.

Most importantly, in this moment I felt the strength that in one school, one community center, one town at a time, we must stand hand in hand and fight until once and for all people of color in our society are treated with the same integrity and care that white people in our society are treated.

We are going to do so led by those who are marginalized, just as the Black and Brown youth led us on Feb. 1.

This is going to be how the change in our society happens: step by step, and with a fierce unwillingness to back down and a resolve to be led to the light.

We are going to do so by examining our own bias and doing the work to make change.

Thank you to the youth who empowered change at their school. May every school in Vermont follow their lead.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #445 (Wednesday, February 7, 2018). This story appeared on page E1.

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