When asked why she wants to be Burlington’s next mayor, Wanda Hines doesn’t hesitate: “I think the whole reason I got into the race is that I felt there wasn’t a viable candidate for the community I represent,” she says.
Pressed to define that community, she is just as likely to rattle off the names of the Old North End families with whom she grew up — the Ploofs, Albarellis, Hartnetts, Merolas — as she is to list the demographic groups with whom she self-identifies: “single mother, gay, lesbian, minority, woman.”
Hines will say her community includes “the people I grew up with since the ’60s,” and “the people who relocated here as Progressives in the ’80s.”
The way she tells it, if anyone’s prepared to represent Burlington’s ideological, socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, it’s Wanda Hines.
“I’m just a blended representative, is what I am,” she says.
And yet, in her role as director of the Social Equity Investment Project, or SEIP, a city position designed to bolster the representation and inclusion of Burlington’s nonwhite communities, Hines has earned mixed reviews.
Her critics contend that she has turned off potential partners and failed to take concrete steps to bring diversity to city hall. Others say Burlington’s inability to include a broader cross section of the city’s population in decision-making positions is the fault of her bosses alone, who have tasked Hines — in a 30-hour-a-week, $37,000-a-year position — with a terribly difficult assignment.
Either way, leaders of Burlington’s communities of color are united in their assessment that racial tensions in the city are nearing a boiling point and that the next mayor better be ready to address them.
“I truly believe the tipping point is coming to Vermont and that, like the many communities that experienced change in the civil-rights movement, we will in fact experience our own civil-rights movement,” says Hal Colston, founder of Good News Garage and professor at Champlain College. “Do we want to be reactive or proactive? I hope it’s the latter. I really think it’s going to come down to leadership.”
Colston and other Burlington civil-rights leaders note that people of color account for 95 percent of Vermont’s population growth in the past decade — the newcomers are predominantly foreign-born refugees concentrated in Burlington and its neighboring cities. But, they say, civic institutions have failed to keep pace in their hiring practices. Racial disparities in the city’s testing scores have widened. And while African Americans make up just 1 percent of Vermont’s population as a whole, Colston says, they are 10 percent of the state’s prisoners.
“I would specifically say that the refusal to seriously address these issues of hiring — the professional populace throughout the city — is a problem, to say the least,” says Reuben Jackson, an award-winning poet, a former curator at the Smithsonian Institution and now a teacher at Burlington High School. “The tension in and around that topic when it is brought up for discussion… It’s big and it’s much more contentious than a lot of people would want to believe.”
Hines and Mayor Bob Kiss have a long history of working together. She ran the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf for 12 years while he headed up its umbrella organization, the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. She came to city hall in 2007 — one year after Kiss took office — when he hired her to help lead the Burlington Legacy Project. He later tasked her with creating the SEIP, from which she is currently on a leave of absence, as part of the city’s Community and Economic Development Office.
“What I wanted was a voice and a person at city hall where people could look to address racial and social and economic injustice, and Wanda has been that person,” Kiss says. “If we didn’t have a position and a person like Wanda, we’d have to create one.”
Hines’ accomplishments include her work on a Diversity and Equity Resolution, which the city council passed last September, calling on boards and commissions to appoint members that better reflect Burlington’s population. She hosts a biannual series of diversity engagement dinners and planned a “diversity and unity retreat” last spring.
“I think she gets involved quite deeply in diversity issues, with regard to people’s participation in city affairs,” says Hines’ boss, CEDO director Larry Kupferman. “Her programs have been very successful.”
Not everyone is impressed.
“Diversity dinners and a resolution are not the answer. We deserve more respect,” says Sara Martinez de Osaba, director of the Vermont Multicultural Alliance for Democracy. “I think everyone was hopeful and expecting that SEIP was going to provide some guidance and leadership, but it never happened.”
According to Osaba, Hines’ initiatives amount to “a laundry list of redundant action items sitting in a file folder.”
“Many people in the community, from all backgrounds, feel disappointed that the administration has been content to house a diversity office at city hall without producing deliverables — other than occasional diversity dinners,” Osaba says. “This is difficult and challenging work, which has been tokenized as it currently sits. Whatever the cause, Hines’ position at CEDO has not led to concrete progress.”
Jeanine Bunzigiye, a Congolese immigrant who serves as a New American liaison to the Burlington Housing Authority, says that Hines is no longer trusted by many in Burlington’s immigrant communities.
“Wanda has burned bridges with many in the New American communities. She would only reach out to us two days before a diversity dinner or other event pleading for us to attend, under the pretense that we needed to show a unified front to those in power to make change happen,” Bunzigiye says. “Many of us eventually realized that she was just using us for photo opportunities for her annual reports and websites.”
To those who criticize her leadership style, Hines responds: “There are just so many communities and you work differently with different communities. I think that I get to people with efficient enough time. I’m used to working in a community that’s shifting all the time … so you just have to catch people when you can, and it’s not always convenient.”
Hines emphasizes that she, too, wishes SEIP had the funding and staffing to achieve more. At a recent forum on multiculturalism and equity featuring all three candidates for mayor, Hines spoke passionately about the limitations she feels she is up against in her current position.
“It’s only a 30-hour-a-week position, and I’ve been doing this job for four and a half years now and it’s not enough. It’s not enough,” she said. “It’s not enough when you’re the only person of color working at city hall on it, OK? Our workforce needs to be reflective of this city. I know there’s a woman of color downstairs in the basement, but…” She paused. “It can be lonely.”
As mayor, Hines said, she would bring people together and empower them.
“I will never be lonely at city hall because this is my community,” she concluded.
Stacey Miller, director of residential life at the University of Vermont, agrees that the underlying problem is not whether Hines is effective at her job but whether she is sufficiently supported by her superiors.
“One person can’t do all those things. That’s impossible. The fact that there’s just one position, that’s not OK. That’s not enough,” Miller says. “It’s not solely her responsibility. Unfortunately, she’s in a position where she should be spearheading that change and also holding those that she works for accountable.”
State Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) believes the Kiss administration has merely paid lip service to the troubles afflicting people of color in Burlington.
“Show us the results,” she says. “What does the position do if that person is not heard — not given the tools they need to make change happen? What can they point to besides a position?”
While the challenges they face are significant, Miller and Osaba are encouraged that all three of this year’s mayoral candidates took part in the multiculturalism forum, as well as a program on Monday at Burlington High School hosted by the group Conversations on Race Now.
At the CORN discussion, Hines’ opponents, Republican Kurt Wright and Democrat Miro Weinberger, each described their experiences growing up in small, mostly white Vermont towns. Wright described his early efforts to dissuade friends from making racist jokes, while Weinberger recalled coping with occasional anti-Semitic remarks made at his expense.
But there have also been some unintended gaffes in the otherwise respectful and thoughtful discussion about race and politics in the city.
Emphasizing the importance he would place on reaching out to all communities in Burlington, Wright said at the multiculturalism forum that if he were elected mayor, “Wanda will have a key role in the administration. I think Wanda does a great job now, and I would want Wanda to be an integral part of the administration. Having said that, again, I know Wanda is planning on being the one in charge.”
“Yes I am,” Hines interjected.
“And, again, she has as good a chance as anyone,” Wright continued. “But a person like Wanda, and there are lots of other people — some people right here in the audience — who would do a great job, so we would be reaching out to those people.”
To Jackson, the BHS teacher, Wright’s remark smacked of the tokenism he claims is rampant at city hall.
“It stung me like about a thousand hornets,” Jackson says. “The patronizing nature of it. And I thought, Oh yeah, we get one person and that’ll be OK. I was sitting there reeling from that.”
Says Ram, “People of color are sick of what Kurt did to Wanda, which is, ‘I just want to outreach to you, I just want to liaise.’”
These leaders say that while each of the candidates may struggle with issues of race in their own way, the forums have helped bring out the discussion.
“I am optimistic because the issues have been raised now to a higher level,” Osaba says. “It’s not just in small circles.”
As for Hines, she says her campaign will concentrate on bringing new voices to the table and new voters to the ballot box. She plans an aggressive voter-registration drive in the Old North End, with a focus on New American citizens. And when she gets to city hall — or, when she gets back to city hall — she says she will bring with her a new perspective.
“Burlington is definitely at a cultural crossroads, a road and a journey that I’ve been on for some years,” Hines says. “As your mayor, I will be a mayor of action, which I have demonstrated time and again. As your mayor, I will continue down that path.”
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