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Voices / Legislative Update

We need to step up our responses

‘Vermont has a long history of social-justice leadership, and so we may choose to try to deflect and assume that what Rep. Morris and others experienced is merely a function of a few crazy extremists. It isn’t.’

Members of the Windham County legislative delegation signing this statement: Representative Mollie S. Burke, Representative David L. Deen, Representative John Gannon, Representative Emily Long, Representative Michael Mrowicki, Representative Kelly Pajala, Representative Carolyn W. Partridge, Representative Laura Sibilia, Representative Valerie A. Stuart, Representative Tristan Toleno, Representative Matthew Trieber, Senator Becca Balint, and Senator Jeanette K. White. Rep. Kiah Morris, a Democrat who is the only black woman in the Legislature, represents the Bennington-2-2 district; in August, she announced her decision not to run for re-election in the aftermath of racist threats to herself and her family.


We respect Rep. Kiah Morris’s decision to withdraw from her re-election campaign and fully support her making this choice for her happiness and safety and for the well-being of her family.

Rep. Morris is a tireless and passionate lawmaker who has served the people of Bennington and Vermont honorably and with distinction. We hope to see her re-emerge in an advocacy role in the future and wish her family well during this difficult period.

We are also deeply saddened and disturbed on many levels by what she has been subjected to online, in her community, and at the Statehouse as a woman of color.

In Windham County, we have also seen hateful comments and materials directed at another legislator’s religious beliefs and candidate’s ethnicity.

If we, as a state and region, really want to encourage young people to come to Vermont, we must welcome diversity. Rep. Morris’s experiences would give pause to anyone looking to relocate to Vermont.

* * *

That the nastiest side of racism exists in Vermont is not a surprise, but it is inconsistent with the story we like to tell about ourselves.

We have all gotten pushback from Windham County residents and voters to the notion that there is racism, hatred, and bigotry here. It is hard to believe in, care about, or act on that which you don’t see.

We do have limited (but growing) diversity in our state, but we still have a lot of homogenous towns where these important conversations about race and diversity do not happen. And there are simply too many Vermonters who believe that racism is a made-up political issue.

Vermont has a long history of social-justice leadership, and so we may choose to try to deflect and assume that what Rep. Morris and others experienced is merely a function of a few crazy extremists. It isn’t.

Like every other state in the union, we have entrenched racism to confront. We have white supremacists in our communities. We have neo-Nazis who feel newly emboldened.

* * *

Having the courage to be honest about the dangerous role these factions play in our communities is the challenge and the responsibility that lies ahead for all of us in this legislative delegation. Yes, their toxicity, open hatred, and links to extremism make them outliers of a sort. But the conditions for them to exist are present in Vermont.

We must have hard public conversations about race and about systemic racism in Vermont institutions, law, and policy. We must courageously wrestle with how to make Vermont and its communities more diverse and inclusive.

As a delegation, we are publicly committing to doing better individually and collectively in challenging racism and bigotry in the face of institutional pressures, hostility, and apathy, as well as a general desire to not make waves.

We often say that “hate has no home here,” but it is only an aspirational statement if we don’t take real, concrete actions to change the climate.

* * *

We need to step up our responses in Vermont, and the Windham County delegation will make this a particular priority in the next session.

We will work individually and collaboratively on action steps, both in the Legislature and in our communities, to clearly and consistently address and combat intolerance and bigotry.

We will work hard to push forward ethnic-studies legislation, a bill championed by Rep. Morris. It had broad support but stalled because it was part of the miscellaneous-education bill that did not make it out of conference committee. It will take time to see the results of a change in curriculum, but it will make a difference in the future.

We commit to continuing the work started last session on implicit bias training for legislators and other Statehouse employees. An important but voluntary implicit-bias training workshop was offered last session, and the Brattleboro-based Community Equity Collaborative (CEC) has worked with members of the Legislature to expand this training. We will continue to work with the CEC to make this a reality.

We must also find a way to effectively confront the vitriol on social media. Many of us have subscribed to the notion that ignoring the meanness and hatred we experience in our work is the best way to deal with it.

We have felt that we don’t want to fuel the fires; we don’t want to give the harassers a broader platform. But it’s clear that ignoring the hate speech is not powerful enough. We need training on how to publicly and effectively address and mitigate abuse on social media so that legislators experiencing this harassment do not feel alone or without tools to address the abuse.

Our list of action steps will certainly grow over the next few weeks and months as we continue conversations with our constituents and our community partners. Of course, we hope this letter will become part of a rich, fruitful dialogue about where we go from here.

We are all extremely honored to serve in the Vermont Legislature, and we want to use our unique position to make real, positive change for all Vermonters.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #476 (Wednesday, September 12, 2018). This story appeared on page D2.

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