BRATTLEBORO — As a town, Brattleboro has been engaging a range of voices and organizations around how to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion.
The topic of race often surfaces in pockets, whether in a letter to the editor that appears in The Commons or a community meeting to discuss incidents like the “Black Lives Don't Matter” posters that appeared around town in 2018.
In a May 2017 issue of The Commons, Curtiss Reed Jr. posed a question to Selectboard candidates: “To what do you attribute the town's inability to recruit, hire - let alone retain - employees of color, and what will you do to change that?”
That question remains.
Reed posed another question at another community conversation to six panelists representing a range of local social-service agencies. “Given that 11 to 12 percent of our population in Brattleboro are folks of color,” he asked, “how do you employ the lens of racial equity in the work you do?”
Reed said that he was posing the question because his work as the executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity focuses on diversifying Vermont's economies. His work focuses on attracting individuals of color, especially entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
One panel member declined to answer the question despite Reed's attempt to encourage all panelists to respond. Another panel member stated that she did not see skin color.
After the discussion, I received an email from an audience member who said that Brattleboro clearly had work to do, based on the visible discomfort in addressing the question.
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“This is a teachable moment,” Reed recently told me. “A desirable response would have included the person sitting to her left and right correcting her. This would have been more powerful. Also, an example to other white people about how you intervene when there's language that is less than desirable spoken in the public sphere.”
“What was so disappointing was the fact that none of the white folks in the room who consider themselves progressive, liberal, anti-racist called her out,” Reed said.
Language creates our reality, and, as Reed said, it is the road to the assumptions we create about who is included and excluded when we use the blanket term “community.”
“The assumption about community is that we're all members,” said Reed.
Reed presented a point that is easy to miss in a town as small as Brattleboro: Often, assumed intimacy passes for community. What do we mean by inclusive community? Who is included, and how does status play a role in that inclusion?
The answers to those questions require work that goes deeper than the efforts of the subculture of individuals who, as Reed said, “seem bent on collecting civil rights and social justice merit badges.”
Such individuals might participate in writing letters to the editor, painting signs, and participating in vigils, yet do none of the actual work that involves personal accountability regarding race.
“Their personal behavior towards residents of color is fraught with microaggressions, exclusion, and an insincerity,” Reed said.
“That's the soft underbelly of Brattleboro.”
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If this is still a challenge to understand, there is another example that most of us ignored for several months without addressing it. A woman who customarily stood on the bridge near of the Brattleboro Food Co-op seeking money once included a line on her sign asking for contributions that stated “Blue lives matter.”
At the time, Reed, writing about poverty and homelessness, said that the very statement “blue lives matter” puts the lives of all persons of color in jeopardy and is racist.
“No one called her out on it,” Reed said.
“I was met with white fragility - that's the other side of this merit badge coin,” he said.
“People are quick to shut down a conversation,” Reed observed. “They are fearful to engage in deep conversation about what it means to be a member of this community.”
Reed and I discussed how we can start the actual process of engaging as a community beyond the surface and self-congratulatory gestures. What is missing in our discourse?
Our behavior shapes an environment that will either contribute to or detract from diversity. “White people need to check white people, just as folks of color need to check folks of color,” Reed said.
For him, it keeps coming back to that meeting.
The panelist can be excused for being “unconsciously unskillful” about issues of race, Reed said.
“What cannot be excused is [that] an audience of white social activists didn't call her out,” he said.
We also must take a hard look at how such action - or lack of action - affects our economy, he adds.
For Reed, attention to tapping into individuals of color as a potential market for tourism is a missed opportunity and one that has not been discussed.
“If we're successful at making Brattleboro a destination of choice for folks of color, we need to have a community that embraces us - [one] that will provide consumer goods and services beyond the expectations of folks that come,” Reed said.
“If this is the kind of attitude we serve - being unconsciously unskillful in the way that one communicates, in the way that one assumes that people are not part of the community - then we might as well put more nails in our economic coffin.”
More tourism dollars can readily stimulate the local economy.
In our conversation, Reed encouraged everyone in Brattleboro to think out of the box and over the borders of Vermont within such domains as faith communities, recreation, and education. All can reach out to communities of color and establish Brattleboro as a destination.
It's also about having an open mind about extending invitations, Reed said. “Not everyone will say yes, but over time, someone will say, 'Well, maybe you should go to Brattleboro. These folks have been nagging me for the last five years.'”
This kind of thinking - every Brattleboro business, organization, and resident as an ambassador - also requires expanding our marketing strategy in ways that could yield creative fruit for the region.
“The Brattleboro Outing Club [could extend] an invite to Outdoor Afro,” said Reed, referring to a nationwide network of African American recreation and conservation groups. “Curtis' BBQ [could hold] a contest, extending an invitation to folks around the country to participate. Who wins is not the focus. The important thing is that you're getting folks to come to do something to experience Vermont and what we have to offer here.”
Reed points out that Brattleboro has a stale grand list, without new sources of revenue, and the town population has hovered around 12,000 for over 40 years. How do we move beyond the visit to inspire individuals to become residents?
One must feel like they are a member of the community, said Reed.
“People talk in generalities about their work around building community,” he said. “But it is not evident to me that they are looking through the racial lens. That work needs to happen.”
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In thinking about this interview with Reed - now four months ago - and with each empty storefront added to the landscape, I ponder his insights about the lack of racial lens, especially as it relates to building our economy.
Several organizations have mentioned working on strategic plans. I wonder if such “work” involves pulling out the old plan, only to change a few words with little thought about who and what is missing. I continually see boards with the same demographic and no apparent plan to shift the faces around the table.
My conversation with Reed also centered around language. In the months since that interview, as a Black woman living in Vermont, I've had at least three conversations that ended with me walking away because of my rage. I counted the moments I refused to be erased due to reckless behaviors or statements.
Of course, there are the many times I became the clichéd deer in headlights because I was stunned.
I wondered about others who, like me, want to balance recharging their batteries and engaging with the community. What does “community” really mean, especially for those who face moments of being outside of it?
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Reed ended our interview with some advice, particularly to white people.
“I would advise them not to ask someone of color, 'Where do you come from?'” he said. “Because oftentimes, the subtext of that is 'Go back to where you came from.'”
“Do not ask, 'How long have you been here?,' because the subtext of that question is 'You've been here too long,'” he said.
His preferred question: “What keeps you here?” - a question that implies that the person is a member of this community.
It's not a word.
It's not a kumbaya moment of temporarily coming together.
It is the careful work and building that needs to be stitched into our every action from the questions we ask those we don't know to how we think about strategic planning.