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A seat at the table

Are minority voices being heard in the SeVEDS process?

BRATTLEBORO—Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, has expressed frustration with the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy and Vital Economy process.

At a recent meeting, he asked pointedly whether SeVEDS and VE “even attempt” to include people of color.

Young professionals who are also ethnic racial minorities remain in the Brattleboro area only about a year, he estimated, saying by then they’d had enough “unconsciously unskillful encounters” with whites.

“The community is dysfunctional on issues of race,” Reed said.

Windham County likes to say it is inclusive, he said, but that inclusion does not extend to issues of race. If the perception is that the community is hostile toward people of color, then the economic development strategy is “a non-starter.”

Reed cited one area of the Vermont economy that his organization has been working on recently: tourism.

When it comes to the way that Vermont promotes itself, Reed said that for many Americans, the Vermont brand represents only white people.

“And is that intentional?” he asked rhetorically.

In a separate interview, Reed said that Vermont Partnership received word of the SeVEDS process in 2007.

Reed attended an early meeting but was “turned off” by the facilitator, whom he felt not to be aware of the importance or fact of the economic contributions of ethnic racial minorities regionally — and in doing so had essentially invalidated them.

Reed withdrew from the SeVEDS process then, but attended the June 27 meeting after reading the initial SeVEDS strategy, which he said contained “gaping holes.”

He faulted the document’s authors for failing to provide analysis around the country’s changing demographics, and focusing disproportionately on recruiting foreign-born nationals.

There are able, willing, and ready American-born racial minorities who could fill Vermont’s labor force, but the SeVEDS process left them out of the target groups, Reed said.

The oversight was not intentional, he allowed, but added that it does “speak to benign neglect” of a growing population in Southern Vermont, and that the community does not understand its implicit bias and how that plays into decisions.

Reed added that building processes that include the entire community speaks to credibility. That means nurturing and developing genuine relationships, and not simply including people of color as “token afterthoughts,” he said.

The SeVEDS process runs the risk of acting like a three-ring circus, with SeVEDS and VE in the center as ringmaster telling the community, “This is my show; you run around in it,” said Reed.

In this case, SeVEDS and VE benefit, not the community.

With authentic partnerships, however, community members see their interests at stake and buy into the process.

Reaching more people could be as simple as changing meeting venues — to childcare facilities and faith communities, for example.

Reed said he is “bullish on Vermont,” because the state needs to make a big shift. Increasingly, ethnic racial minorities contribute a bigger share of economic activity.

Without attracting a more multicultural population, “Vermont may as well roll up and die,” he said.

Calls seeking comment from SeVEDS representatives were not returned by press time.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #211 (Wednesday, July 10, 2013).

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