BRATTLEBORO—In the beginning of December, Colchester’s Islamic Society of Vermont (ISVT) received an anonymous letter with a hateful message.
A few weeks later, during an interfaith meeting to show support for the mosque’s congregation, Imam Islam Hassan noted how one negative letter brought in 500 letters of support and love.
One attendee noted “hundreds of postcards” arrived bearing “hearts of love."
Most of those postcards came from Local Love Brigade, a Brattleboro-based independent grassroots organization founded by Ann Braden.
Members of the Local Love Brigade send postcards with hand-drawn hearts, letters of support, and homemade baked goods to religious groups and individual children and adults — many of them people of color — who are victims of hate-motivated actions in Vermont and beyond.
Membership is easy: join the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/groups/LocalLoveBrigade) and start sending postcards.
Some of the recipients are local elementary school students in English as a Second Language programs, families of the victims of the mass murders in Charleston churches, members of Jewish synagogues who had received anti-Semitic flyers and online harassment, and newly-arrived Syrian refugees in Rutland.
Braden is no stranger to grassroots activism. She is well-known around the state as a founder of Gun Sense Vermont, an organization that supports stronger laws to ensure that guns stay out of the wrong hands.
She said much of her inspiration for creating the Local Love Brigade was watching “The Laramie Project,” the dramatic film about the consequences the townspeople of Laramie, Wyoming, faced after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.
In the film, a group of counter-protestors dressed up like angels “with huge wings” and “blocked the hate” of the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing of Shepard’s funeral, Braden said.
“The power of that silent defiance” showed “how you can have love going up against hate in an effective way,” Braden said.
A political event she attended at the end of November inspired the postcard idea. “We talked about a postcard avalanche” opposing Steve Bannon’s appointment as President-elect Donald J. Trump’s chief strategist, Braden said.
“Then I got the idea of ‘positive postcards,’” she said.
Braden created a Facebook page and invited the many friends she’s made in the area, some through her work with Gun Sense. “I’m already connected with people who care about social justice,” she said.
From there it took off, with members sharing ideas almost every day, beginning with the Dec. 6 action to send supportive postcards to the ISVT.
The ISVT “thing happened as I was setting up the Facebook group,” Braden said, explaining that someone shared the hateful letter the ISVT received on another political Facebook page Braden reads.
“There’s a thing I can do!” she said.
To help keep things organized, Braden set up a Google document that all members can access through the Facebook page and where they can make suggestions for further actions. Braden noted she gets consent from recipients — “by the adult, or by the family if the recipient is a child."
The Google document also includes instructions for setting up your own Local Love Brigade. “It’s so replicable. There are eight steps and it takes about 10 minutes,” Braden said.
Since the original group’s founding, Local Love Brigade chapters were started in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington, and an Ohio branch is planned, too, Braden said.
“It’s remarkable how the discourse has changed” since the presidential elections, Braden said. “Things that weren’t allowable are now okay."
Braden sees a connection between her college studies in authoritarian systems and today’s political and social climate. “Society breaks down, everyone is for themselves, everyone just wants to protect themselves. But, we can reverse that. You can stay silent or you can speak up, and it doesn’t have to be complex,” Braden said, noting the effect of simple messages like “you’re loved” and “you’re supported.”
A Montpelier resident named Danielle and her family recently received the Local Love Brigade’s messages of love and support, and it started because she is a member.
On the group’s Facebook page, “I shared how our eldest child, who is nine years old, had been afraid to sleep on her own at night because of fear that the president-elect would come into our home and take her. My wife and I realized that our child’s fear was likely rooted in our own fear of what could happen to our marriage and adoption rights as a same-sex couple,” Danielle told The Commons.
In response, Braden asked Danielle if her family would like to receive support from the Local Love Brigade.
Danielle shared other painful memories with The Commons, including attending a parade and “watching my beautiful brown daughters standing with a group of white children. The local team mascot hugged all of the children before them and all of the children after them,” but her daughters reached out and were ignored.
On a recent shopping trip, Danielle’s wife and her eldest daughter were denied use of a public bathroom. “My wife was unsure if access was denied because of race, sexual orientation, or a combination of the two. Most of these instances cause ‘heartburn’ for my wife and me, but I am not sure at what level my daughters take it in.”
“When the love offering of baked goods arrived, our daughters were so excited! They delighted in the packages and the treats. They beamed. My wife and I felt supported, too. Overall, it was an uplifting experience, and we had the chance to feel a part of our community in a positive way,” Danielle said.
“It’s important that when hateful things come up, we don’t stuff them down,” Braden said. “We have to draw attention to the fact that our most vulnerable citizens are facing acts of hate, and they don’t have to face it alone."
“One reason the Local Love Brigade seems to work is so many people feel frustration when bad things happen and they want to know, “What can I do?’” Braden said.
“Feel connected to others, and do a simple action,” she said.
As an example, Braden mentioned the ongoing drive to deliver home-baked goods to ESL students.
“It’s cookies,” she said. “It’s not some high-tech, complicated economic solution. Sure, we need those, too, but it really can be so simple.”