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State Sen. Becca Balint, center, led a Dec. 12 forum in Brattleboro to hear civil rights concerns and plan a course for legislative action in the coming year.

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‘Let’s go in with our eyes wide open’

Lawmakers, advocates meet to share concerns, plan strategy for legislative session

BRATTLEBORO—On a recent wintry morning full of school closures and delays, about 30 community members braved the steep, snow-packed driveway of the Winston Prouty Center’s Austine Campus to sit together in a circle and talk about how grassroots efforts and legislative action can protect the civil rights of many Vermonters.

The group, which met on Dec. 12 in Holton Hall, included social service leaders and their clients, students, six members of the Windham County delegation to the Legislature, and a number of people who described themselves as “concerned citizens.”

“In the days after the [Presidential] elections, I got many calls from constituents, and they and their children had been harassed,” Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, told the group.

Some of these incidents occurred while they were pumping gas, she said. A person would drive by and yell at them, “Get out of my state!”

“This is happening in their town, where they live,” added Balint. “This isn’t happening somewhere else. This is happening here. So, let’s go in with our eyes wide open.”

The event, entitled “Emergency Legislative Forum on Vermont Civil Rights,” was sponsored by the Winston Prouty Center and facilitated by Balint and members of the Community Equity Collaborative.

The Collaborative, whose “work in the Brattleboro area strives to deepen the connections between cultural diversity, innovation and a thriving, prosperous community,” formed in 2008 in response to the emergence of a white supremacist group founded by local high school students.

The organizers’ “overarching concern [is] our destabilized political environment has every marginalized population in our country fearful of an uncertain and, at times, unimaginable future,” said the event’s news release.

The stated purpose of the forum was to “preserve and strengthen the civil rights of Vermonters currently under threat [and] restore confidence in our public institutions and reassure people of color, people in the corrections system, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community members, immigrants, New Americans, asylum seekers, women who are victims of abuse, and undocumented community members that they can be proud to call Vermont home.”

Topics addressed at the event included establishing Vermont as a sanctuary state, addressing implicit bias in law enforcement and schools, protecting the safety net for people with disabilities, ensuring all children have equal access to education, and creating civilian oversight in police training.

Sanctuary state

During the “sanctuary state” discussion, the talk began with an explanation of the term and how to implement the process statewide, possibly through the state legislature and in individual communities.

In a sanctuary state, no state or municipal employee, including law enforcement personnel, can inquire about a person’s immigration status, and they are prohibited from working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

The entire state of Oregon, and at least 40 municipalities across the country, have established themselves as sanctuary areas. The concept began in 1979 when the Los Angeles Police Department’s officers were prevented from asking arrestees their immigration status.

Curtiss Reed, Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, suggested an addition to the definition of sanctuary state: the state refuses to aid in the creation or maintenance of a registry of Americans of the Muslim faith.

This registry was proposed during President-elect Donald J. Trump’s campaign.

Michelle Cromwell, chief diversity officer at the School for International Training, noted there is some discussion about making SIT a sanctuary school, “but our campus has no police force, so how do we do that?”

Cromwell said the school’s concern is how to protect their undocumented students.

State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, noted “we have 80 law enforcement agencies in the state,” then asked, “If we have a state policy, is it worth having this fight in 80 entities?"

“This is one more piece of legislation to unify what is expected of law enforcement,” Reed said, suggesting the lawmakers not “take the battle to 80 police departments and constables,” but “make a blanket statement statewide."

“We’ve already started that process,” noted state Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.

Mrowicki briefly told the story of his constituent, Abdel Rababah, a Jordanian national who was detained by federal law enforcement when he tried getting a driver’s privilege card at the Division of Motor Vehicles office in Dummerston.

“We arranged for his release and instructed state employees this is not their role,” Mrowicki said. After settling a Human Rights Commission discrimination case with Rababah, the DMV agreed to make several changes to its procedures and policies.

Reed pointed out the Vermont State Police already “has a rule to not contact [Customs] unless a criminal act is involved,” thus, the State Police cannot detain someone just to ask about their immigration status.

Implicit bias

“One of the hidden gems in Vermont is the Vermont State Police,” Reed said when introducing the “Implicit Bias” section of the forum.

Implicit bias is when a person harbors prejudices about other people, whether negative — for example, the belief that people of a particular race are lazy — or positive — for example, the belief that people of a particular gender are nurturers.

Balint pointed out the difference between implicit and explicit bias, noting “we all have [implicit bias],” and “we’re not here to point fingers,” but “let’s make systemic change” to mitigate it.

Reed described the Vermont State Police as being “a decade ahead of everyone else” in recognizing implicit bias, noting Capt. Ingrid Jonas, Director of Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs, “is doing trainings ... on bias, tracking data, and talking with outlier troopers.”

But Reed noted that changes must take place beyond law enforcement.

Those working in housing, economic services, and other departments “must be cognizant of implicit biases, especially those involved in distributing state dollars,” Reed said.

Reed suggested mandating trainings for all state employees on how to palliate the effects of negative implicit bias on their work.

The public education system needs help, too, Reed said, when planning curricula, teaching modalities, and a school’s interaction with the community.

“Nothing is happening with our teachers on implicit bias,” he said, noting “as the state becomes more multiracial and multilingual, our state Legislature should lead on this."

“We’ve had individual teachers for years talking about implicit bias,” said Balint, who is also a teacher, “but we’re looking for statewide action."

“Who’s getting disciplined? Who’s getting out-of-school suspensions?” Balint said, noting the racial and gender bias of which students most often get singled out for punishment.

“Are any states doing a good job on this that we could pattern?” asked state Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro.

Reed’s answer was curt: “No."

“We want Vermont to provide leadership,” said Donna Macomber, former Brattleboro Selectboard member and Executive Director of the Women’s Freedom Center. “We’re small and can move rapidly. We can invent this wheel.”

Serving all students

“The civil rights of all students need to be protected,” said Reed, explaining the “holes” in state education regulations that allow independent schools to “cherry pick” which students they accept — as long as the schools accept no public funding.

Independent schools are “under no obligation to accept public funds, but they need to agree to accept any student who comes to them,” Reed said, regardless of gender identity, cognitive ability, or physical ability.

State Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, noted that some advocates of independent schools not accepting all students use the term “school choice” to justify their bias.

“If all children don’t have access to the same choice, it’s not real choice,” Long said, noting socio-economic class differences and a lack of transportation prevent some children from having access to their or their caregivers’ school choices.

“The word ‘choice’ is often about protecting the choice of those who have privilege,” Macomber said.

Protecting disability funding

Although participants expressed their feelings at many points during the forum, the most emotionally charged moments came when disabled members of the community spoke up about their fear and sadness.

Katherine Breunig, who described herself as part of Families First, the Windham County nonprofit serving children and adults living with disabilities, said the organization has “helped me along the way” since the fall of 2009.

Breunig choked up as she said, “I’m nervous. I don’t want to lose anything I have. [Families First] is effective in my life.” Other participants were seen blotting their eyes as Breunig spoke.

Families First Executive Director Julie Cunningham explained what’s behind Breunig’s fear.

“The money to fund the President-elect’s projects will likely come from the ‘safety net,’” she said, and future Medicaid allocations will likely go to states as block grants, which may result in severely reduced funding.

“What can you put into place to protect Medicaid, especially for people with disabilities?” Cunningham asked the local legislative delegation. “Because if that funding is cut, there really is nothing else."

Mike “Action” Curtis, a client and member of the Families First Standing Committee, said this funding is “very important to clients at all Vermont agencies."

“I want the President[-elect] to not take away funding for [Social Security Insurance],” Curtis said, adding, “I’m a little nervous inside that Donald Trump is going to take it away from me and all the other clients in Vermont."

“I know it’s emotional,” Curtis said in response to Breunig’s concerns, “but there are people to help. We’ll do everything in our power to stop Donald Trump."

“Donald Trump in his campaign made fun of disabled people. He also made racial comments,” Cunningham said. “It’s made people afraid. I want to acknowledge how hard it is to talk about that in this dismantling of how we treat each other. That’s why we need to put this legislation in place, to speak to that.”

“We’ll be okay in Vermont,” Mrowicki said. “Vermont has focused its aid to [the] Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [program]. We will stay vigilant and keep the money where it needs to go.”

Citizen oversight

“We need to have more citizens involved in the critical points of law enforcement training and oversight,” Reed said, noting there are few opportunities for this under the current system.

“In the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, there are 15 members who oversee law enforcement training for the whole state. We’re asking to increase the commission to include seven community members,” Reed said, noting also that some of those community members could come from such groups as the National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the disability rights movement.

Reed also called for “a line-by-line review in the training curriculum” at the police academy.

“Historically, law enforcement tells the Legislature, ‘We know what’s best for law enforcement,’ but if law enforcement is accountable to the community, we need to have community members sitting on that council,” Reed said. “Citizens need to be in the room during deliberations and decisions.”

Next steps

Attendees talked about the need for concrete action steps.

“Let’s get to work, be practical, and get behind the Legislature,” said resident Dianne Clouet.

Shela Linton of The Root Social Justice Center mentioned the Friday evening working group meeting at The Root, noting the space “is safe, for all of us to come together ... and not be so scattered and alone."

“Now we need to unify more than ever and work on the same things,” Macomber said.

Balint noted there are “many organizations and they all want your boots on the ground to help” their efforts.

Macomber asked the members of the Legislature to “let us know how to support them to do these things."

“The Windham County delegates meet regularly, which is rare in the Legislature, so we’re on it, we work together,” Balint said.

She and White then gave attendees a primer in how the Legislature works.

“Now is the time for drafting legislation,” Balint said.

“When a bill goes to committee, that’s when [citizens] give [their] input,” said White, who then suggested every organization “designate someone to keep an eye on all bills in committee.”

When a bill comes into committee that interests the group, White said to “call the committee chair and ask to testify, even if you’re not an expert. You can testify from your heart."

White acknowledged the hardship some Windham County residents may face in getting to Montpelier to testify, and noted, “You can testify by phone, too."

But time is of the essence.

“Once it leaves committee, you have very little input because it then goes to the floor, where it’s harder to give input, so check the calendar on the website,” White said. (legislature.vermont.gov/home/noteworthy/legislative-schedule) “Get one of us or all of us to sponsor this piece of legislation.”

“We can carpool to testify,” Cunningham said. “This is our opportunity to stand up to bullying and hate.”

“What went to my heart [today],” Macomber said at the end of the meeting, “was 30 people got up and cleaned stuff off the car and came up this steep hill. This is what makes me absolutely certain we won’t stand for hate and intolerance in our community.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #388 (Wednesday, December 21, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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