A message, loud and clear
Tammy McNamera of Dummerston. [filer]

A message, loud and clear

For the more than 80 people who showed up early on a Sunday morning to paint a ‘Black Lives Matter’ mural on a road in Putney, the giant yellow letters represent a resolute rebuke of racism that transcends politics

PUTNEY — On Sunday morning, more than 80 people showed up outside the Putney Central School to help paint a “Black Lives Matter” mural on the road.

After several weeks of tension that saw an explosion of division in community conversations about the merits and meaning of a project designed to visually display resolute support for Black people, it all happened.

For every driver passing by who yelled out the window “All lives matter,” dozens more honked, waved, and flashed the thumbs-up at volunteers of all ages working on the pavement, from elementary children to senior citizens.

Beginning at 8 a.m., using brooms, leaf blowers, and their own hands, volunteers began clearing debris so other volunteers could draw chalk outlines for the 12-foot-9-inch letters, starting with the top half in the southbound lane of Westminster West Road.

As they worked, cars were flagged through by troopers from the Windham County Sheriff's Office.

The chalk outlines were quickly filled in with yellow road paint. Helped along in the drying by volunteers who deployed the leaf blowers, the paint dried enough for the officers on the detail to shift traffic to the other side of the road.

And then it all started again, for the bottom half of the message.

Throughout the whole process, others kept an eye out for cars and warned painters of passing traffic.

“I've been impressed with maybe 95 to 98 percent of them - waving, smiling, honking their horns, including the out-of-state license plates,” said Elizabeth Christie, who held a Black Lives Matter Sign while she called out cars for most of the project.

“There have been a couple of really stern expressions from some people who are very focused on the road and [wouldn't] catch your eye,” she said.

“They're obviously uncomfortable with this,“ she said. “But they're in the small minority.”

An addition to the 'necessary conversation'

The mural is a project of the town's Equity and Inclusion Committee, and committee members Steffen Gillom, Lisa Muñoz, Laura Chapman, and Jamie Contois were thrilled at how events were unfolding.

“I think it's beautiful,” said Gillom, the president of the Windham County chapter of the NAACP. “I think the community has really rallied around [the mural].”

“I'm really happy to be here,” he continued. “Everyone's in really good spirits and is really happy, and the vibe is great.”

“I think [the mural] is great and needed, and that it's added to the necessary conversation,” said Muñoz. “It's something really special,” she said, noting that the undertaking “speaks a lot to the values of the community and of showing up.”

“This is an act of showing up,” she said. “I know people think it's a political statement, or that people have an agenda. I think the agenda is 'Let's value people in our community and other communities.'”

Chapman, who recently resigned as chair of the Selectboard but remains on the committee, said that the work of addressing bias and inequity is only beginning.

“There's so much more to be done,” she said. “But we started something and we have an amazing committee, which in itself represents a great deal of diversity and brings different minds to the table.”

“Just having folks that represent different identities, coming in and having conversations about how we govern is where it all starts,” she added.

“We can't change anything if everybody is homogenous,“ Chapman said.

“I'm so proud of our community,” said Contois. “I think it's important right now that we as White people recognize our piece of this work. It's our work to listen to our Black and Brown leaders and ask them for what support they're looking for.

“Our piece of this work is to listen,” she said. “It's to believe, and it is to do our own work to become anti-racists.”

'So the children can see it'

State Representative Mike Mrowicki called the project “both a statement in support of addressing systemic racism and a real, tangible manifestation of that support so people can see it. Especially here in front of the school. So the children can see it.”

“[I think] it's remarkable that a small community in Vermont is going to put the time and effort to show support,” said Jasmine Martin, a Putney resident. “I think it's important that as a community, we make everybody feel welcome.”

“In front of a school, it's significant,” she continued.

Critics accused the committee of inappropriately exposing students to political division or progressive indoctrination. Committee members have countered that the Black Lives Matter movement fundamentally addresses a reality that Black people have been endangered, and that support and safety for people of color in Putney is a human rights issue that transcends politics.

“A lot of people have feelings about it being in front of the school, but I think it shows that educating our kids is important,” Martin continued.

“I think it looks great,“ said Selectboard Chair Josh Laughlin. “I think the size and placement is great. I'm just glad to see people out participating.”

“Hopefully it doesn't draw controversy,“ he added. “It doesn't look to me like it should. And if there are those who are gonna make it controversial, then it's up to them. But so far, I think everything seems to be going really well.”

Dawn Zweig, a science teacher at The Putney School, brought a small group of students from the school who volunteered to assist with the painting of the mural.

“I like that Putney is painting the road,” said one student, Julissa Garcia. “It's really awesome. I got involved in marches in Boston when I was there, and it's good that Putney's getting involved.”

“I like it because it shows me that some White people actually like Black people,” said Dominick Muscari, a student of color who goes to Putney Central School. “I appreciate that.”

A 'good symbol to have,' but 'it's only a step'

For now, a 160-foot-long mural on the road is important, powerful symbolism of the real work left to do - work that will inevitably create more awkward meetings, more bruised feelings, more heated Facebook threads.

“I think it's a good way to start with social justice, but I don't think it's enough,” said Sam Zhu, a Putney School student. “It's a good a symbol to have, but, you know, just painting a road doesn't bring societal change to anything. It's just a road - but it's still a good start.”

“I think it's really exciting to see this happening in the community where I live,” said Chrissy Lee. “I'm really proud of all the people who came together to make this happen. And I think it's a powerful statement.”

Collin Leech, a resident of Westminster West, said “I know that it's only a step - it's not solving anything.”

“But it's action, and it's something I can physically do that feels good,” she said. “It's a time when there is so much going on that is anxiety producing and upsetting. But it's so important to hang on to the positive ways things are changing. Being part of that positive change feels really good to me. And I'm hopeful that we're moving in the right direction.”

After the mural was completed, Gillom, recognizing that the state has “a lot of people of color and a lot of marginalized communities here,” said a few words, alluding to some of the recent rancor.

“We're all human beings. And we have that in common. And we should not forget that,“ he said, noting that the project was “shaped by a purpose” and a spirit of cooperation despite the conflict.

“And so if we're going to really walk our talk, then we need to start doing it,” Gillom continued. “We need to be involved. I was so happy to be here at 7 a.m.”

Contois led the group in a moment of silence in remembrance of Black people who had been killed, followed by a chant of “Black Lives Matter.”

So what comes next?

“A week's break!” Muñoz said with a laugh, citing the months-long process that led to the mural painting. “You know, self-care.”

“And then we'll hit the ground running again,” she said.

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