Vermont Declaration of Inclusion initiative reaches new milestone

Towns comprising 77 percent of the state’s population have adopted the resolution

-To date, 149 Vermont cities and towns, home to about 77 percent of the state's population, have adopted the Vermont Declaration of Inclusion to ensure all residents, visitors, and people considering moving to their communities feel welcome, safe, and that they belong.

Begun as a grassroots initiative by community members in the Rutland area, the Declaration of Inclusion has gained momentum with the help of Vermont Interfaith Action, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

This year Governor Phil Scott declared the second week of May as Inclusion Week, his fourth such proclamation.

"The state must and will continue to address the challenges of achieving racial and ethnic equity across Vermont and to nurture the diverse society in which we want our youth to live and prosper," Scott said.

These groups' efforts were recognized at a press conference on May 9 at the state capitol, organized by Vermont Interfaith Action.

At the press conference, Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie of White River Junction, who is a member of the NAACP, wondered: If Vermont considers itself a welcoming state, why do people leave?

"It's important for our state to grow and ensure that when people come, they want to stay and can stay," he said.

Willie Docto, a Duxbury innkeeper and chair of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce's diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) task force, pointed out that the chamber's mission is to advance the state economy and that the Declaration of Inclusion is essential to that effort.

"I hope news of what's happening here spreads far and wide," Docto said, "and people beyond Vermont know that there are communities across our state that are eager to welcome them."

Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said his organization tries to offer an aspirational vision for what municipal government should be in Vermont.

"And what should it be other than a place where everyone feels empowered, everyone feels welcome, and everyone feels like they belong in Vermont?" he asked.

Not all on board

In an FAQ document provided by the organizers, those behind the initiative say "the Declaration of Inclusion is really a pledge by town leadership to urge the citizens to be more respectful and accepting of all people.

"In addition, this is a statewide effort with far-reaching implications for Vermont and for each town. To make this happen, we need to state our intentions clearly and then our citizens must really live it. For this to happen, a signed statement by the Selectboard will be important as a visible example to follow."

Not all towns have joined the program.

Eight selectboards - those in Charleston, Eden, Albany, Sheffield, Lunenburg, Bridgewater, Hubbardton, and Highgate - have voted not to adopt the resolution. Hubbardton and Highgate both initially voted to adopt, then voted to rescind that decision.

Dummerston, Westminster, Chittenden, and Tunbridge voters moved to adopt it at town meeting by wide margins. Coventry voted not to adopt by a small margin.

Selectboards in Grafton, Whitingham, Morgan, Barnet, Jay, Charleston, and Lowell have declined to consider voting.

Initiative representative James "Al" Wakefield says the group has heard varied reasons for voting not to adopt or declining to vote at all. They include, he said, "the Governor already did it," "It's addressing problems we don't have," "That doesn't apply to us," "We're too busy now," "We are already a welcoming community," "We don't have that problem here," and "We don't want to be associated with those folks."

"It is our experience that selectboards vote 'no' or decline to vote for several significant reasons, the most prominent being a lack of understanding of the spirit and intent of the Declaration of Inclusion, an apprehension or even a fear of outcomes, and ignorance, an unwillingness or disinclination to lead or change," Wakefield says.

The folks behind the Vermont Declaration of Inclusion initiative say they will continue to reach out to all municipalities in the state so they can weigh in on the Declaration.

A second phase of the initiative's work is already underway, assisting communities that have adopted the declaration to implement it.

"Adoption is just the first step," says Initiative founder Bob Harnish. "We then ask our towns to bring it to their residents so true inclusion becomes a work in progress."

Inclusion in the program, say organizers, requires little or no cost, but implementation is important. The Vermont Community Foundation has established a $200,000 fund from which towns can apply for up to $10,000.

Some towns have used this funding to hire consultants to administer implicit bias training and examine town ordinances for implicit bias.

Others ask why, if the governor has issued a proclamation for the state, does each town have to do it?

"Discussion by citizens of each town is important and each town should decide on what form implementation should take," reads the declaration initiative website. "Each town can craft a statement of declaration, within our guidelines, to reflect the wishes of town leadership and citizenry."

As to the question "if we like our town as it is, why would we want to adopt your statement?" organizers say: "To make Vermont a popular and desirable destination, every town should be respectful and welcoming to all residents. Ideally every resident should feel a sense of belonging. Most towns are struggling to maintain population and, therefore, maintain the tax base; new residents bring vitality."

Still others say they've never seen racism in their towns.

"Racism is rarely seen or felt by those who are not a target of it," say initiative organizers. "We want to create a statewide culture of tolerance and welcoming for moral reasons but also for economic reasons: Vermont needs people and it needs younger people."

You can find the group's guides to implementation online at, a website maintained by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. In addition, the group has created an implementation toolkit.

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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