BRATTLEBORO—Windham County may soon get its first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest civil rights organization. They describe their mission as being “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.”
There are more than 2,000 NAACP units across the country, and more than 500,000 members. A staff member at the national headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, said that since the presidential elections, the organization has seen an “enormous increase” in memberships, interest, and donations, and units are getting established in long-underserved areas, such as Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
Vermont is another long-underserved area.
Until February 2015, with the founding of the Burlington unit, there were no Vermont NAACP chapters specifically for adult members. (Norwich University started a youth chapter in 2013, and Rutland is in the process of getting an adult chapter.)
But Southern Vermont has none.
That may change.
Two School for International Training students, Steffen Gillom and Jesse Roaza, are leading the effort to set up the Windham County NAACP unit.
Gillom serves as SIT’s Diversity Fellow in the Department of Student Affairs. Roaza is the Project Coordinator for Wilmington Works and formerly worked with the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.
Although Gillom and Roaza only began collecting the required 100 signatures to form the unit at the end of November, they are more than halfway to their goal.
The requirements to join are simple. “You must be affiliated with the community in some way — you live or work in Windham County,” Roaza said.
Membership is open to all races, Roaza said, noting the organization was founded by African-Americans and Caucasians. The NAACP website’s membership page says, “If you care about fighting the racial disparities that are still too prevalent in America, the NAACP is the place where you can make a difference."
“As a young person of color, it’s exciting for me to have [the NAACP] here,” Gillom said, noting, “it’s important to have representation."
“Steffen will likely become president,” of the chapter once it gets its charter, Roaza said. After elections, the president forms an executive committee and chooses representatives from various towns in the county.
The members will form additional committees focusing on relevant issues in the county, such as awareness, needs assessment, education, and organizational diversity, Roaza said.
Roaza, who is part Korean-Filipino and part Irish, expressed the need for more knowledge about different races and ethnicities in Windham County.
“I’ve had instances of going into delis and people think I’m homeless,” Roaza said. He mentioned another incident: he brought some fellow SIT students to a former food establishment in the area. The other students were Muslim. They were denied service.
“I didn’t debate my own self-identity until I got here,” Roaza said. “I stick out here. I’m half-Asian and half-White. I’ve always been proud of being bi-racial."
“But here, I’m often asked what country I’m from,” Roaza said.
Roaza is from Florida.
“In the South we talk about racism, because the new generation doesn’t want to be racist like their grandparents,” Roaza said, “But here in the Northeast, we don’t really talk about racism until something horrible happens. Then, the conversation starts."
“I love living here,” he said, “but I can’t believe the South does [racial] things better! We’re supposed to be so liberal here."
Roaza attributes this disconnect to too few people of color in the area. But, since moving here a few years ago, he has noticed Brattleboro’s diversity increasing.
Starting the NAACP chapter is right on time, he said.
“Steffen and I were talking about forming this [unit] before the elections, but the catalyst was the [Presidential] elections,” Roaza said.
“Within days after the elections, I saw pickup trucks [in the area] with Confederate flags on them,” he said.
For Gillom, the days after the presidential election brought this experience: he was walking on a public road and someone in a passing car yelled a racial slur at him.
“It caught me off-guard because he just so casually said it. It brought it home. It was disheartening,” said Gillom, who is of African-American, Native American, and European-American descent.
“I’ve never felt so vulnerable,” he said.
“Being a young professional in the working world, I faced discriminatory biases, too, and it’s my responsibility to do something about it,” said Gillom, who is originally from the Midwest.
Gillom is undecided whether he will continue living here after his studies are finished, “but I want to make sure the NAACP is here and is running."
“My biggest concerns are for people of color living outside of Brattleboro. The further you get from Brattleboro ... the language changes, the body language changes, I get more people telling me to ‘go back to my country,’” Roaza said.
He wondered what it’s like to live in a town with only a few people of color.
“Those people are more vulnerable,” he said, “and that’s what scares me."
Gillom and Roaza have reached out to other social and racial justice organizations in the area to collaborate, and have received encouragement from them, from the Windham County Young Professionals group, Wilmington Works, and from the Windham County legislative delegation.
Roaza believes the NAACP’s biggest advantage, “other than the power of its name, is keeping a dialogue with other institutions. The NAACP has always emphasized the importance of an open line of communication."
“A lot of people have talked about their fears of the upcoming president,” Roaza said. “Vermont has a lot of issues, but I like that this county in particular has people who care a lot and who want to get involved ... That’s what I want to contribute, a place for people to voice their concerns and work for civil rights in the county."
“I’m just here to be chill and get shit done,” Gillom said.