PUTNEY—It is common now to say that progress toward racial equity and facing the wounds of the history of slavery in the United States and white violence against Black people will require difficult conversations.
That was certainly the case in Putney in the past two weeks.
At a Sept. 2 special meeting to address policy related to an earlier decision by the board to create a large Black Lives Matter mural on the road outside the Putney Central School, a regional advocate for people of color publicly held town officials to account over a collection of the town administrator’s publicly accessible posts on her personal Facebook profile.
The reaction of Steffen Gillom, the president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP and a member of the town’s Equity and Inclusion Committee (EIC), and other people of color objected to efforts by town officials — particularly two White male Selectboard members — to address the situation at the meeting illustrated a chasm.
These issues have thrust town officials and employees beyond issues like managing the removal of a dead tree on a town street or how trick-or-treat activities should be handled in light of COVID-19.
A huge, difficult, and uncomfortable distance remains between longtime residents and officials of a small town, who try to handle conflict with mutual understanding and compromise, and a growing movement of people of color who contend that there is no room to understand communications and behaviors that scream of racism — whatever the intent.
Confronting the issue
At the meeting, during the discussion of the mural, Gillom, in calm and measured tones, forcefully expressed concern that matters of town policy and equity initiatives could not be considered until posts on the personal Facebook profile of Town Administrator Karen Astley had been addressed.
Gillem said that a Putney resident had provided him with screen shots of the posts from Astley’s account, which appears to have since been deactivated.
Astley shared a viral Facebook post about the killing of a White child by a Black neighbor with psychiatric issues who was immediately arrested.
“His [the child’s] life mattered as much as anyone else’s,” said the text of the shared post, which Facebook flagged as false information.
Astley, present at the meeting, had shared the text and image, adding her own comment: “ALL LIVES MATTER. ALL LIVES MATTER. ALL LIVES MATTER,” a slogan often used by White people who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement.
She argued that she had simply re-shared that and several other similar posts, and that the words were not hers. Gillom contended that sharing posts and images implied her endorsement of those ideas.
The discussion and debate in that meeting was tense and heated. Procedural questions were raised by Vice Chair Josh Laughlin and others about whether the discussion was appropriate for an open meeting that had been warned for a specific purpose.
Other participants, including Laura Chapman, the chair, argued that they were.
The White board members and audience, obviously uncomfortable, struggled to describe their own path to acknowledging, learning, and addressing issues of privilege and race. Several implored Astley to follow their lead. One invited her to join their local anti-racism book group.
Periodically, Gillom returned to the issue of the posts. He cited Astley’s position of authority and role in the town’s hiring processes and the crisis of confidence that the posts would instill in any applicants or employees of color.
The meeting ended without resolution, but a visibly numbed Astley acknowledged the depth of hurt that her posts had caused and said that she would seek to deepen her understanding.
The following day, Chapman resigned from the board, citing personal reasons. She remains on the EIC.
In her resignation letter, she wrote of the need to diversify and expand the board to five members, and to address “cultural issues that can be found rooted within a patriarchal system, built for landowners, by White men long before anyone but White men had human rights in America and Putney.”
Formal apologies from Astley, Laughlin
The meeting had been attended by only a small number of people, but at the board’s regular meeting the following week, on Sept. 9, a crowd showed up, with as many as 70 people in attendance at one point. Neither Gillom nor Chapman was present.
The two remaining board members, Laughlin and David Babbitt, tabled further conversation of the BLM mural. Astley read a statement of apology, which she also shared with The Commons when she declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Upon reflection, I regret the post that appeared on my private Facebook page which repeated a message of ‘All Lives Matter,’” Astley said. “I now understand that post was perceived by many as showing my lack of support for the importance of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ message. I fully support the meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
“I did not intent to diminish in any way the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the increased awareness it has brought to regarding systemic racism and inequality,” Astley continued. “I am truly remorseful for any hurt I may have caused.”
Soon after Astley read her statement, Laughlin spoke to the apology.
“I am aware that Karen harmed her and the town’s relationship with the BIPOC community through the reposting of the meme she just referred to,” he said. “Her actions were addressed in executive [session]...[and] I will say that the board was confident that her apology and interest in educating herself and working to regain the confidence she lost is genuine.”
“I know that I am only at the beginning of a long process of understanding the implications and impact of widespread systemic racism,” Laughlin said. “I am committed to doing the work that I need to do better in my role here, and I am sorry for any disrespect that I have shown to the members of our community in any way.”
“I am really hopeful that we can all work together to do the best we can to come through these very challenging times, and I thank you all for your parts in working on this difficult topics,” Laughlin said.
‘I’m just beginning to learn about this’
Notwithstanding Astley’s apology and Laughlin’s support of her, a number of participants in last Wednesday’s meeting expressed deep concerns that this particular instance reflected a larger problem in Putney.
Mary Gannon, senior diversity and education trainer at the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, spoke to the way in which racist incidents force people of color to speak out, and that when they do, “the narrative is that ‘their tone was inappropriate, or they were too angry, and I couldn’t hear them,’ when in fact many White people who are expressing outrage are exhibiting the same kinds of behaviors.
“It is of utmost importance that elected officials and other people in positions of leadership are stepping forward and speaking up against [these] kinds of behaviors or sentiments or social media postings,” she continued.
“We all have places where we need to learn, and I absolutely appreciate the town manager’s expression of that tonight, we are all in a learning process,” Gannon said. “But when we are in positions where we have power, we need to be stepping forward against the kinds of things that are happening.
“I’ve been hearing in the community that people feel Steffen’s tone was inappropriate or too outspoken,” said Gannon. “We are in very challenging times, and I appreciate that this town is wrestling with these issues.”
But, she said, “it is really important that elected officials find ways to step up and speak out when they hear things like this happening.”
The need for education for White people on matters of racial inequity and injustice was a theme throughout both meetings, and at the previous special meeting Gillom spoke directly to that point, saying that it is up to white individuals to educate themselves, not expect people of color to do so, noting how widely available resources are to do so.
“I want some acknowledgement that it is not Steffen’s job to educate this board,” said Liz Adams, a member of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union education board, who said she was speaking as a member of the community.
Adams referenced a statement at the prior meeting by Selectboard member David Babbitt, who had said that “in any given situation, the person who is more knowledgeable needs to act more knowledgeable here, regardless of their experience here, regardless of what they have been through.”
“So first of all, I’m just beginning to learn about this, and I know very little,” said Babbitt in response to Adams. “I’m reading White Fragility right now. I’m learning a lot.”
“Public speaking isn’t my thing,” he said, noting that the Selectboard represents the first time he has served on a town board.
“I’m not good at this,” he said. “I try my best. I care a lot about everybody. But the feelings and thoughts in here didn’t come out very well.”
‘They rallied around Karen. They protected Karen.’
At the Sept. 2 meeting, board members reacted to Gillom’s concerns by acknowledging the difficulty of the issue and agreeing that the town should be a welcoming and safe place for people of color. Yet they questioned whether the discussion about Astley’s posts should be deferred to a different time and meeting format.
They hoped to handle the situation on terms that would minimize embarrassment for an employee and do so in a way that would be comfortable to a bloc of townspeople who are suspicious of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The consequence? Gillom felt silenced.
“I would have loved to [have been] felt heard,” said Gillom in an interview with The Commons. “I would have loved to have been invited to a conversation about how we would structurally protect people of color, and make sure that, if there was ever harm that came from [Astley’s posts], that the Selectboard would act in a way that protects marginalized communities.”
“That would have taken neutrality in the moment, and they didn’t have that,” said Gillom. “They rallied around Karen. They protected Karen. And that’s when you saw personal relationships get in the way of their actual duties as board members.”
Laughlin argued the procedural point at length in the special meeting, before deferring to Chapman as chair, who allowed the discussion to proceed.
In an interview with The Commons, Laughlin spoke directly to this question, talking about the complexity of balancing the procedural process of the Selectboard with the need to have this sort of conversation in a public forum.
“It’s been pretty clear to me, historically, what belongs in open meetings and what doesn’t […] and I felt the need to express that concern,” said Laughlin, who was first elected to the board in 2006. “I know it was certainly received as trying to silence the discussion that was going on.
“My intent was not to silence, it was to place [the conversation] in a time and place that it would be most effective, and it wasn’t clear to me that was the place for it. And honestly, that may just straight up be ignorance on my part, and I’m going to have to figure that one out as we go forward.”
‘This has opened up the door to what’s really happening’
As the Selectboard works to add a third member to replace Chapman, the question of policy related to the Black Lives Matter mural has been deferred. It is clear that hard conversations will continue, including the question of who the third board member will be, and the question of whether plans for the mural will be changed in some way.
Divisions within the town of Putney reflect divisions across America when it comes to racial justice and a reckoning with the nation’s history of slavery and White oppression and violence.
While the discussion may be about a mural or some Facebook posts, the larger questions America faces are never far off.
“My point of view on this, honestly, is that this has opened up the door to what’s really happening,” said Marc Thurman, the education director for the NAACP of Windham County who sits on the EIC and is also director of the Centers for Diversity and Inclusion at Landmark College.
“Everyone just assumes that everyone’s on the same page, that those who hide behind a liberal hat are like, everything is fine, everything is OK,” said Thurman. “When Steffen raised his concerns it just opened the door to what’s really going on, and we’re not on the same page, and it’s not OK.”
In her resignation letter, Chapman noted that Putney is one of the first townships in Windham County to take steps to directly combat structural racism and toward creating a model for racial equity and inclusion. She noted her pride in leading the Selectboard’s creation of the EIC a year ago.
That committee’s work has continued through a period that saw the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Daniel Prude at the hands of police, the latest in a seemingly endless litany of deaths of Black individuals at the hands of police, as well as during an upsurge of protest against racism and increased white support for the concept of Black Lives Matter.
‘What people don’t say matters’
Measured by its residents’ voting habits, Putney is a progressive town, with more than 90 percent of voters backing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 and Black Lives Matter signs in the front yards of many homes.
About 4 percent of Putney residents were people of color on the 2010 census, with a significant majority being students at Landmark College and the Putney School. The efforts to create the EIC and to paint the Black Lives Matter mural has been mainly led by White residents of the town.
The town’s history with race has sometimes been troubled. In 1987, a cross was burned on the grounds of a Black family’s home, which was destroyed by fire the following year. At times during the 1990s and 2000s, Landmark College administrators had to communicate with town officials or the Windham County Sheriff’s Department to make sure its students of color were not targeted or mistreated.
A recent spate of racist graffiti on streets in towns across Windham County brought a “BLM is racist” message spray-painted on Route 5 in mid-July. The incident mobilized a vigil on Main Street and inspired the idea for the Black Lives Matter mural on Westminster West Road in front of Putney Central School.
“When the Black Lives Matter graffiti happened, our Selectboard really struggled with how to respond to it, and they struggled with the fact that I was so outspoken about it,” Chapman told The Commons in an interview after she had resigned from the board. “And what I saw throughout the community was a lot of amazing, wonderful support for people of color, and I also saw some really disturbing things and heard some really disturbing things.”
“I think there is a lot of divisiveness [in Putney] and a lot of it has its own 40-year undertone,” said Liz Adams, a longtime resident. “What people don’t say matters as much, if not more, as what they actually do say.”
“I think there’s a number of people who are definitely open to learning more,” she added. “I also think that there’s also a subset that definitely is not open to learning more and want to stick with their old beliefs about race.”
In an interview with The Commons, Laughlin talked about the complexities and divisions within the town, which has a strong progressive community and also a community that does not support — or perhaps understand — the Black Lives Matter movement and who opposes the painting of the mural outside the town school.
“There’s a really mixed community here of those who are very progressive and very much looking at how the bigger world works,” said Laughlin, “and then there’s a more traditional community as well — you know, families that have been here for many generations and folks that not many of them are very progressive.
“We have a balancing act in how to try to bring the two together, and as much as possible in a meaningful way,” he said.
Landmark College offers resources
Landmark College’s student population of about 400 provides a considerable presence in the town. The college attracts a diverse population of students, with approximately 40 of them people of color.
The college’s president, Peter Eden, has offered the town the college’s assistance in any way that it can help with the issue. He told The Commons that Astley had spoken with him directly to expand on her apology.
“What happens in Putney does have an effect on Landmark students,” said Eden, who acknowledged that his voice was not as important as those of others in considering town issues, but said that he cares deeply about Putney, the mural, and the college.
In recent years, Landmark has taken intentional steps to broaden its embrace of neurodiversity to create systemic and structural ways of being a welcoming place for all forms of diversity. The college has made a significant investment of resources in its Centers for Diversity and Inclusion, which provide welcoming spaces, programming, and support for Black students and other students of color as well as students from the LGBTQ+ community and women.
“We are able to do something very, very special here,” said Thurman, director of the CDIs. “And that’s not being afraid to talk about things that may make some feel awful, may make you feel offended, or may actually make you want to open up a book on White supremacy, and that’s not an easy thing to do.”
“We have to take off these masks and be who we are, and stop hiding behind these masks of ‘I’m going to say I agree, but I really don’t; I’m going to say I educated myself, but I really didn’t,” said Thurman. “You’re kidding yourself.”
Coming together — or not
The town has the potential to come closer together on the issues that divide it.
Both Loughlin and Babbitt — the two remaining Selectboard members — along with Astley have expressed regrets and their willingness to educate themselves and learn.
The town officials have expressed openness to diversity training for themselves and perhaps town employees, a similar step to what Brattleboro has undertaken over the past year, according to Jaime Contois, co-chair of the EIC. And despite the continued presence of opposition to the idea in town, it seems that the mural will move forward.
“We’re ready for this moment,” Contois told The Commons. “We’re at a point now where we’re going to paint Black Lives Matter on the road. We need to pass our rotating policy [for street painting] and once our rotating policy is all set we’re going to be going ahead on Sept. 27.”
Beyond policy and painting, divisions in the town will still need to be mended. The process will require principled stands. And those stands on such a fundamental issue of human rights will disrupt the agree-to-disagree legacy of small-town life in rural southern Vermont.
“For Black families and brown families and families of every color and experience, we need to make sure that they know this community is doing their work, and that if they are targeted or isolated or receive aggressive actions, we’re going to stand with them and say no,” said Contois.
For Contois, a small town coping with understanding and addressing racism is not an abstraction. “This isn’t like faraway places,” she said.
“Sometimes you’re going to say no to your friends. I mean, that’s the sad part — I’m starting to lose friends over this,” Contois said. “We’re going to lose friends over it.”