BRATTLEBORO—At a corner table at The Works Bakery Café on Main Street, Brattleboro native, activist, staff organizer for the Vermont Workers’ Center, and mother of two Shela Linton admits that public speaking makes her nervous.
Think sweaty palms and heart palpitations kind of nervous.
Linton, 36, gestures with her hands as she speaks. She smiles and laughs easily. She is forthright in her opinions and beliefs. At numerous local and state workshops, gatherings, rallies, and protests, Linton stands as a natural leader.
It’s hard to imagine Linton ever nervous.
Linton stepped up to leadership positions through a combination of time, practice, and a commitment to her community.
“Anyone can do this,” she said of taking leadership roles. “I want to give this back to my community.”
Last month, Glamour magazine announced its Women of the Year awards for 2014. Along with such personages as actor Lupita Nyong’o, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, and oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the magazine also recognized an influential woman from each state.
For its “50 Phenomenal Women of the Year Who Are Making a Difference” recognition, the magazine chose Linton to represent Vermont.
In a press release, the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) said Glamour selected Linton “for her leadership role in the Healthcare is a Human Right campaign, which is building a movement for a healthcare system which provides all care to all people in Vermont.”
Linton said the recognition fills her with pride and gratitude. On mention of the Glamour nod she also exhibits what U.S. Rep. Peter Welch points to as a quintessential Vermont trait: compliment Vermonters on hard work done well and they get shy, act humble, and shrug.
“They found me,” Linton said of the Glamour recognition.
Linton said she stands where she is because of the “hundreds of thousands” of people who supported her and believed in her work.
Even when she did not feel sure of herself.
More than a career — a calling
Linton said she views the Glamour recognition as a tribute to the community’s determination to stand for justice.
To be honored for work in her hometown, and for her work at the state level “to fight for justice and build relationships,” feels good, she said.
Creating social change is her calling, Linton said.
She started her career in public health. While at the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, she launched an advocacy program helping parents and children in the school system confront issues of bullying and discrimination.
From 2004 to 2009, Linton served on the town school board.
A piece in The Commons in June 2007 noted respect toward Linton fell in short supply: In May of 2004, Linton had applied to fill a school board vacancy. Despite her strong résumé the board declined, in favor of its own nominee, and cited conflicts of interest. The Selectboard overruled the school trustees.
The Commons article described the school board meetings as “uneasy.” Six months into her term, Linton charged the board with systematically attempting to undermine her.
According to Linton, fellow board members often called her a troublemaker. Linton said she felt shame. She censored herself. It caused her to shrink — just a little bit.
She said things changed for her when she realized many people in her community wanted her to speak up: She was the troublemaker they’d voted for.
Linton recalls greeting voters at the polls during an election round for a spot on the school board. One woman approached and said, “You’re that Shela.”
The woman then related a conversation she’d had with her 90-year-old mother. Linton recalls the woman saying that her mother thought Linton a troublemaker, that she was loud, and that she would cause a ruckus on the board.
When the woman asked her mother who she should vote for, the woman’s mother responded: “Linton. That’s who you should vote for. She’s doing something.”
That moment brought home for Linton that under all the “trash talking,” being called a troublemaker, and being told she was only “playing the race card,” that a community existed that supported her and her work.
“I’m taking back ‘troublemaker,’” she said.
Linton’s definition of troublemaker became “someone who stands up for justice.”
“One thank you means so much to me at the end of the day,” she added. “Why focus on the negative voices?” Instead, she said, she focuses on those who want to collaborate with her. She said she hopes that, in time, naysayers will have changed their tunes.
Linton said her parents, Barbara and David Linton, were the first to inspire her: “They’re activists. They’re the foundation of who I have become.”
No one accomplishes anything in this life without the help or work of others, Linton said.
Society tells us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and go it alone as individuals, she said, but that’s a myth.
When people understand how they are intertwined with one another, they then see how freedom and justice are intertwined, she said.
She used the example of purchasing a gallon of milk.
A cow must produce the milk; a farmer must milk the cow; someone needs to produce the containers to hold the milk; someone must drive the milk from farm to store; and the store must have coolers and employees to store and stock the milk; she said.
“Without relationships, nothing gets done,” she said.
Linton said her parents changed state law. She didn’t realize the effect her parents had on state law until she was an adult.
In 1991, Linton’s parents sued the Brattleboro Union School District, the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, and two employees for racial harassment of Linton and her brother. A teacher had put Linton’s brother in a headlock and called him derogatory names.
Linton said her family operated in survival mode.
Although Linton’s case never came to fruition, her parents won the case for her brother in 1994.
According to Linton, the state’s current bullying and harassment laws mirror the court ruling in her brother’s case.
Her experience of being bullied in school and her parents’ efforts were some of the reasons why Linton developed her advocacy work in schools.
“Those children were me at one time,” she said.
When asked what experiences helped make her who she is today, Linton said, “Getting my ass kicked every day at school. You can quote that.”
A moment that defined Linton occurred while she was still in kindergarden.
“I was just Shela,” Linton said of how she started that school day.
During a game of King of the Mountain, things changed. A kid pushed Linton down and called her “nigger.”
From that day on, Linton said, she was defined not as Shela but “that little black girl.”
Society made it clear who she was and, as a child, that changed her forever, Linton said.
Even though she is of mixed race, Linton does not look in the mirror and call herself white.
Linton said people often assume that because she’s black, she only focuses on advocating for people of color or that she only cares about issues of race.
She reminds people about her work in public health and VWC’s Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign.
“I’m blunt about white folks,” Linton said. White friends have asked Linton if she hates them. Linton shakes her head. Just because she holds people to account, she said, it doesn’t mean she dislikes people because they’re white.
Linton expects people to own the part they play in society and acknowledge that not everyone experiences or navigates society equally.
“We’re all human, but we’re not all the same,” she said. “When you wake up brown, you let me know.”
When asked what racism looks like in Brattleboro, Linton moved her hands outward to encompass the space around her.
“It looks just like this. We just have to have the ability to recognize it,” she said.
Many people in Brattleboro feel removed from issues of racism, said Linton. “Not in my town,” they tell themselves.
Linton said that we all live in a society that has institutionalized racism.
Using an example from a friend who had posted something similar on her Facebook wall, Linton said that society is like a fishbowl.
A fish doesn’t know the concept of water, she said. Water is how it lives. It doesn’t imagine a life without it.
Racism is always present, like the water in the fishbowl. People are so entrenched in it — and the privileges it affords white people — that many who thrive in the fishbowl don’t see the water, she said.
But for people in the fishbowl who don’t thrive, or need to come up for air, then they live a very different life in the fishbowl, said Linton.
Living in a predominately white community, “I could never be in the fishbowl,” said Linton.
Racism isn’t just being called “nigger” or calling out white people who belong to the Ku Klux Klan, said Linton.
Racism is also the property owners on Main Street who won’t let a person of color open a storefront in their building, or not having any businesses on Main Street run by people of color, she said. Racism is also youth of color caught in a cycle of poverty.
It’s living with a feeling — even if Brattleboro is your hometown — of “you don’t belong here,” said Linton.
Brattleboro is great for Shela, Linton said of living in the community. But as a person of color, Brattleboro is not the greatest, she added.
When asked how Linton defined justice, she said, “As people, are we able to live dignified lives?”
“Everything else is injustice,” she said. “Unjust things in a world that could be just if we really recognized we all deserve to live dignified lives.”
Oppression and systems that dehumanize people are woven into society’s fabric, she said.
For one person to win, another must lose, she said.
“Why do we choose to pit each other against each other?” she asked. “And what is the purpose of that?”
“I used to think I couldn’t be myself, that I’d have to assimilate,” Linton said.
Yet she’s learned through her advocacy work that people search for the courage to be themselves.
Linton said her two daughters have also helped her believe in herself.
Linton was 16 when she had her first child, now 20.
And she’s healthy, beautiful, has a job, is in college, and “she’s doing it,” said Linton.
Linton said she can make her living anywhere, but she wants to be in Brattleboro.
“I’ve been given this gift to help people,” she said.
Linton tears up slightly thinking about the many people she’s worked with over her career.
Sometimes people need to know someone believes them, trusts them, and hears them, she said. Listening to someone and hearing them are not always the same.
In her advocacy work, Linton said she tries to focus on creating systemic change so that her work can help not just one, but many.
She said that not all her advocacy work or efforts with the VWC has had happy endings. Still, she has witnessed many successes.
Watching people she’s worked with become empowered and take up their own leadership roles, gives her a lot of satisfaction, she said, explaining that these people go on to change other people’s lives for the better.
“I stand in the face of fear and I hope to empower others to do so too,” Linton said.