BRATTLEBORO — Some of the most recent concerns around diversity accountability in Brattleboro sprang up in March 2017 at a Selectboard Candidates' Forum, when issues pertaining to the racial composition of the town's workforce came into the spotlight.
In some circles, the issue was a point of confusion about how to proceed, given Vermont's largely-Caucasian population.
But amid the confusion and cautious discussion, town members have continued efforts to address social disparities in the Brattleboro community - efforts that have entailed nearly a decade's worth of implementation, education, and prioritizing of accountability.
This is all with the help of a vast community network: the Community Equity Collaborative.
The scope of a partnership
The Community Equity Collaborative's vision is for “the greater Brattleboro area [to be] recognized as an open and welcoming epicenter celebrating diversity free of prejudice and discrimination of all kinds.”
The Collaborative is composed of educators, town officials, community members, law enforcement, clergy, and local government leaders.
Former superintendent Ron Stahley has played an integral role in the Collaborative's efforts and was recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the Spring 2018 edition of its magazine, Teaching Tolerance.
Teaching Tolerance highlighted the many undertakings spearheaded by the Collaborative that emerged largely due to Stahley's leadership.
Stahley and the Collaborative have developed middle school leadership trainings, yearly school climate surveys, student-led school leadership teams, collegiate high school courses around social competencies, and community diversity celebrations.
“It's pretty humbling, so when Diana Wahle nominated me [to the SPLC], I thought, 'well, there [are] plenty of people that deserve this,' and when I was told I was selected, I was really shocked,” Stahley said.
He added, “I want to highlight Diana Wahle's work ... She is incredible. She was a real advocate for this work, and I couldn't have done this work without somebody like her.”
Wahle's work in the Collaborative goes back to 2008, when it was organized in response to a racial hate incident at the high school, where a group of some students had formed a group with a blatantly racist name that included a racial slur.
Ten years later, Wahle continues her work as convenor of the Collaborative. Prior to the Collaborative, she served for 13 years as the executive director of a community partnership called the Alliance for Building Community; the Alliance worked with the state government, school district, and the United Way to do community planning and responsd in a meaningful way to the racial hate incident.
Wahle and her contemporaries pulled together an array of community leaders - including education leaders, the town manager, the police chief, the state attorney, business leaders, and others - to come together for a three-day Future Search conference in 2009, where the group identified four major areas of focus to address the issues.
The four key efforts that emerged at the conference are still discussed today and have become reality for the most part: anti-bias training for law enforcement across the state, hosting an annual celebration of diversity (which happens every May on Gallery Walk), a Social Competency curriculum for the school district, and the Vermont Vision for a Multi-Cultural Future state-wide conference.
As a result of these discussions, the Collaborative was formed, and it has since evolved out of a shared understanding of the need for a “hub,” as Wahle described it, to support these four key activities and ensure their success.
This “hub” is now a vast and multi-faceted one. It continues to reflect on how to address conflicts such as those raised in Selectboard and School Board meetings. Areas for improvement still exist, but the committee in the past year has implemented changes and developed plans for future efforts.
The activities are nuanced, comprehensive, and supported by a wide variety of community partners and resources.
“I tend to be pretty skeptical [about similar undertakings],” said Selectboard member David Schoales, “but this has really been the opposite ... It is unusual that a town, particularly a historically white, northern, Vermont town, is doing so much across the community to try to make itself more welcoming to people of color so that they can help us live in a world that reflects the rest of the world. It's stunning how many organizations - private and public and nonprofit - have gotten involved.”
Part of the initial discussions in the committee about issues in the workplace raised questions about what were the actual intentions of the efforts - questions such as: Is this all simply about meeting a diversity quota? Is this all just about numbers?
“I'm glad you raised this,” Wahle said in an interview, eager to clarify intentions as this concern has been frequently raised. She credited Anne Brnger, executive director of human resources at SIT, who has developed approaches that emphasize the meaningful nature beneath all of these efforts.
“Anne brought us an approach to recruitment and retention [in the workplace and school system] that invites people to look much more deeply at the tasks involved, in a meaningful way,” Wahle said. “And what it demands, really, is for institutions to examine their recruitment practices, what are their hiring panels like.”
However, Wahle added, people then have to look at the workplace.
“Is it a welcoming workplace, and how strategically through employee training can you ensure that you have a workplace where employees are aware of implicit bias and racial disparities?” Wahle asked.
She said the Collaborative shared a goal of “not only having a certain percentage of people in the workforce that are people of color, but to look at leadership in the institutions.”
The committee has focused in particular on the need for people of color in leadership positions in the school system.
This, in turn, sends a message to students of color and those considering moving to the area that the community can serve as a place of safety and belonging, with some reassurance that diversity does exist and is still growing.
“We have between 20 and 22 percent students of color in our town,” Stahley said, “and that's way above the Vermont average of about 6 percent, so we want to make sure the teachers reflect that type of diversity.”
The Collaborative's efforts are about much more than meeting numeric expectations; the efforts involve extensive self-reflection, digging deeply to find caring solutions to overt and covert injustice.
But, as Wahle noted wryly, they do this all as “[white people] who know they haven't done very well.”
Noting the failures of white society to protect people of color from systemic problems, she said the people involved in the Collaborative know that “this is something to focus on now, and not something to brush under the rug.”
“I do feel people are very focused to dedicate time to important issues that they want to address in a way that has a meaningful, positive response - not just a reaction,” Wahle said. “We are a community that is willing to face some of the most difficult challenges that relate to race relations, and [we're willing] to face them head on. We are perennial students on how to stand up for students and people of color in our community and be allies with them.”