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Welcoming a more diverse population

Conference this week to ask: How can Vermont, no longer the whitest state in the nation, benefit from more inclusion?

BRATTLEBORO—It’s been said often in the past few years: Vermont is growing older, and young people are fleeing the state in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

What usually doesn’t get mentioned by the demographic doom-and-gloomers is this fact from the 2010 U.S. Census: the percentage of Vermont’s population that is non-Hispanic white has dropped to 94.3 percent, the African-American population here has doubled since 2000, and residents in both these groups are younger than their white counterparts.

While Maine has edged out Vermont as the oldest and whitest state in the country, according to Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, the rest of the nation doesn’t know this yet.

“By 2042, the population of the United States is going to be majority-minority,” Reed said. “Vermont’s population is not changing as fast, but it is changing, and we need to position ourselves to take advantage of those changes.”

That shift is one of the main factors driving the Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future conference, which will be held on May 3 and 4 at The Putney School’s Currier Center.

Reed said the conference “will be led by the participants, with a goal of bringing together community leaders from government, education, business, labor, nonprofits, and philanthropic sectors, and get them to share ideas and best practices for promoting diversity.”

Co-sponsoring the event are the National Life Group Foundation, The Putney School, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, and World Learning.

One of the participants, Julie Lineberger, is co-owner of LineSync Architecture of Wilmington and is a past president of the board of directors for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

She talked about the need to look at diversity as “more than just race,” but also encompassing culture, language, and ability.

“Businesses keep saying they can’t find the right people for the jobs they have,” said Lineberger. “As a workforce, we have advanced to where there are more people working now that two or three decades ago would not even be considered for jobs.”

Diversity plus inclusion

Mary Gannon, an education equity consultant for the Vermont Partnership, said it is not enough to increase diversity in the workplace, or any other venue.

“We also need to address issues of inclusion,” Gannon said. “The other element is that once we attract people, how do you keep them here?”

“We all have great intentions,” she added, “but the reality is that people are still being marginalized.”

Lineberger said that a big part of Vermont’s cultural self-image is its independent nature, and that can be at odds with the interdependent nature of other cultures.

Reed said that, in general, “there are a lot of great things happening [in this part of Vermont] and people are committed to diversity.”

That, he said, was another reason for organizing the conference.

“We’ve been planning this for a long time,” Reed said, adding that unlike past events, “this is not linked to a critical incident.”

Still, Reed said he believes that the state needs to start controlling its image better, particularly in regard to the “whitest state” label that is often associated with Vermont. Changing that image will take time.

Ultimately, when the conference is complete, Reed said he hoped that a Vermont-centered network can be established for sharing ideas and supporting policies that work.

“I want to create a continuing dialogue where people can draw upon resources in the community,” he said. “We are working with a group of well-intentioned leaders. How do we inspire them to act with deliberate intention on issues of equity and fairness?”

“I believe that requires experimentation and trust,” he said.

The public may attend the conference. Call the Vermont Partnership’s office at 802-254-2972 for more information.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #150 (Wednesday, May 2, 2012).

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