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Steffen Gillom in 2018, holding his newly minted NAACP member card shortly after he helped form the organization’s Windham County chapter.

Voices / Interview

‘We all have our parts to play’

‘In the next couple years, I would love to see this NAACP branch in particular become more integrated with the local community,’ says Steffen Gillom, a cofounder of the Windham County chapter of the civil rights nonprofit

Steffen Gillom is the president of the Windham County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Born and raised in the St. Louis, Missouri metropolitan area, he came to Brattleboro to study at the School for International Training. In his role as Coordinator for Diversity and Inclusion, he helped to establish Landmark College’s Rise Up! Center, a venue for students of color and their White allies. He is currently a doctoral student at Antioch in Marriage and Family Therapy. He sat down to talk with Shanta Lee Gander and MacLean Gander on Jan. 31.

Brattleboro

What attracted you to this area? What keeps you here?

First, education. For a lot of people of color, especially in my age range, economic opportunity or education usually brings them here. I also liked the beauty.

I’ve found that living here I’ve become more transient — I think because Vermont is so homogenous, I’ve found myself enjoying my travel more. It’s not because I don’t want to be here, but in many other places, you can have the best of both worlds.

I like being able to be around nature, beauty and all those things with a somewhat livable socioeconomic thing going on. I say that because Vermont is pretty expensive to live in, but it’s not New York or Boston, so there is a little bit of economic protection here.

What got you involved with the NAACP and got you to take on the role of president of the Windham County chapter?

I was doing diversity work for SIT, and I wanted to get more involved, but none of the groups that were around appealed to me.

Growing up, I remember the NAACP — they were just so ingrained into the community that I didn’t really think much about it. They were there, just like a lot of other organizations or communities, like 100 Black Men or Eastern Star. That’s the kind of community I grew up in.

So I wanted to bring that flavor to Vermont, and especially to southern Vermont, because I think that we’re unique. The census probably doesn’t catch a lot of people of color here because they are transient — I think there are at least 10 percent more people of color living here. If I walk downtown or through the grocery store, I see quite a few people of color. It’s no Boston or New York or Buffalo, but it’s better than the stretch from here to Burlington.

What is the Windham County NAACP doing? What is your vision?

Every NAACP branch has its own character based on its community, which is kind of cool. Our bylaws let you create lots of different committees, so you look at what’s going on in your neck of the woods and then you just go from there.

And since it’s a volunteer organization, when people become NAACP members, especially officers, everything they do starts to become NAACP work.

As a branch, we push for policy change, working with governments on the local level and state level. For example, one bill in the state Legislature proposes an amendment to the Vermont Constitution to formally prohibit slavery, and we’ve been part of that process. We’ve given our thoughts to legislators on our language and our stance.

Then, we do a lot of consulting with different organizations.

We also promote participatory action for people of color. We have an education committee, and we sometimes go into the schools and colleges. I came into Landmark College to help establish their diversity center for people of color.

We also raise awareness and build capacity through looking at different groups’ issues — any organization that our values align with, or any coalition of people. We sometimes will support their movements and use the NAACP name to bolster and support what they’re doing, which usually is pretty helpful to them.

And we advocate for individuals as well. People call us up about something going on at that moment of their life. Of course, you can’t take all of the cases. But there have been a few that we’ve been able to help. And that’s felt good.

Are there gaps that you see in the work that you do? Are there areas where you’d like to go further?

We want to be seen in the community, and we are seen, in a way. We’re a big part of the statewide activist community as far as being social-justice leaders and doing work on a structural level that way. And we’re somewhat ingrained in the grassroots community here.

But in the next couple of years, I would love to see this NAACP branch in particular become more integrated with the local community.

I have a pretty strong cabinet, but all of us are transients or transplants. I’d love to see people who maybe lived here in their childhood pick up leadership positions in the NAACP, carry the local chapter on, and make it more ingrained, so that if I have to leave at some point, it won’t just die out with me and my team.

You had a great turnout for your annual dinner. Did that attendance reflect a lot of folks casually going to this one event, or are those people you can tap into for serious work?

What surprised me about the dinner was the meaningful relationships that we had gained. We cut off attendance at 225, but I think we could have had 300. We had folks from Antioch University New England, Landmark College, the Community Equity Collaborative (CEC), legislators, and community activists.

It was really empowering to see the investment in this branch of the NAACP and the civil rights movement that we are trying to create here.

How is Windham County doing in terms of policy discussions and engagement around race or racial equity?

I think that Windham County is doing well. Unlike a lot of other places that are majority White, it has created an infrastructure for this work to happen. There is some action happening on most levels that I witness.

You have something like the CEC or the Putney Huddle, which is a whole bunch of mainly middle- to later-aged White people who are coming together trying to figure out their place. You have similar groups in other places. So that’s really cool.

You have town diversity trainings; you have people like Curtiss Reed here, mobilizing with the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity; and you have The Root Social Justice Center. We’re doing a lot of grassroots work here.

And then you have also the NAACP, and we are obviously taking a more structural approach.

We all have our parts to play.

The biggest gap is that we’re too insular. Windham County is this little petri dish. Everything has evolved in its own little unique way. In some ways, that is really good, but in other ways that has left us distant from the rest of the wild kingdom out there. And that can be a challenge.

Also, even as we’re sitting on the Massachusetts border and the New Hampshire border, there’s not a lot of crossover work. I don’t feel like we’re participating enough with other groups outside of Vermont, and I think it doesn’t illuminate the good work that we’re doing here.

Given that our population is 1112 percent people of color, how does the community employ the lens of racial equity in its work? How can everyone, from businesses to service agencies, address blind spots? And where do we start?

There are dual narratives happening.

First, people look at it from what I’ll call the White perspective — I’m not saying this is all White people — and seeing diversity through a compositional lens: “How many people am I seeing? What’s the number looking like?”

Then you’ve got the majority of people of color whom I’ve interacted with on the other side of that, saying, “What about the experience that I’m having?”

You can work to bring a large number of people of color to a place to live, but if you hold all of the structural power in that place, then their experience will soon become unsatisfactory and their descendents marginalized.

So we should illuminate what people of color are doing through the lens of attracting and bringing people closer to the area — not just for tourism, but by offering legitimate economic opportunity.

We should create and hold trainings, which a lot of people will do for not very much money. It’s about investing in your own infrastructure and your own businesses, which I don’t think a lot of people are doing around here.

If you’re a White progressive living in the hills of Dummerston or Putney, you might not see your own blind spots when it comes to racial equity or the lived experience of people of color in this area. What do White people do about that?

As a person who is half White, I’ve seen White people in my own life having to adapt with the times. I’ve seen some of their views change over time. And I think a lot of that happens with proximity. Unfortunately, here we don’t have as much proximity to large groups of people of color, and when we do have that, there is this discomfort that happens.

It’s an empathy-building process. But I think it has to come from your own intergenerational look, and breaking down what has contributed to your own development.

First, they should deal with the conflict and be radically honest with themselves by asking, for example: “Where and what has been my upbringing? In what ways has my upbringing shaped me? So looking at the intergenerational patterns of my upbringing, has there been alcoholism? Was I poor? Was I rich? Was I, you know, WASP-y? Was I from Connecticut? Was I French Canadian?”

By looking at these different facets of yourself, breaking yourself down and then building yourself back up via conversation with yourself and others, you can then ask, “Okay, now how do all these identities define me? What have they given me in my life? Where have my different identities helped and blinded me?”

And then build that empathy for yourself around what you haven’t experienced — and then go out and educate yourself and try to apply that to others, too, so that you can see it through other lenses.

We put race front and center during observances like Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Black History Month. But then there’s the next month, and it goes away. We like the insight that being a White ally is not a part-time job. Your thoughts?

A lot of White people have said to me that when it comes to conversations about race, they feel misunderstood. If you’re a White ally today and I hear you say that you feel misunderstood, I get where you’re coming from, but no one has misunderstood you. They just want you to do better.

I don’t know how you would frame that in a nice way, but I mean it in the nicest way possible. Right?

Do that complex analysis of yourself so that you can understand how you walk through the world and be more mindful of how you show up to situations, so you can just be your best self.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #549 (Wednesday, February 19, 2020). This story appeared on page D1.

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