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Minority Rule 

Who will lead the next generation of Vermont’s racial justice activists?

Published November 11, 2009 at 9:53 a.m.

Jeanine Bunzigiye, Harka Khadka, Sara Martinez de Osaba, Dan Balón
  • Jeanine Bunzigiye, Harka Khadka, Sara Martinez de Osaba, Dan Balón

Bright rays of sunlight flooded the sanctuary of Burlington’s Unitarian Universalist Church last Saturday afternoon in fitting tribute to a man who spent much of his life illuminating injustice. John Whitehead Tucker III, a civil rights activist and leader of Burlington’s African American community, was being eulogized.

Friends, family members and political leaders turned out to honor Tucker, who died September 1 at the age of 74. An advocate for Vermont’s poor and disenfranchised, he spent many years as director of the Peace & Justice Center’s Racial Justice and Equity Project, as well as advisor to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Tucker’s friends and colleagues painted a picture of a “passionate,” “tireless” and “verbose” man who “fearlessly spoke truth to power.” Former University of Vermont administrator Rebecca Flewelling described his presence as one that “disturbed the atmosphere, and the status quo,” and ultimately “kept us honest.” Former Vermont Governor Phil Hoff, to whom Tucker also served as an advisor, described him thusly: “I think if the devil himself walked down this aisle, John would meet him head on. He was afraid of no one.”

Just as noteworthy as the people who attended Tucker’s memorial service were those who didn’t: Among the more than 80 attendees were few people of color, in particular young, African American men. Tucker spent much of his life empowering the powerless, but the people who benefited most from his legacy did not show up to remember him.

Tucker’s death came just nine days after Vermont lost another formidable figure in the civil rights movement: H. Lawrence “Larry” McCrorey, who died August 23 at his Grand Isle home at age 82. McCrorey was hired at UVM in 1966, a time when the university had only one other black faculty member. He quickly rose in prominence as a professor, researcher, administrator and community activist. McCrorey cofounded the Vermont Human Rights Commission and served as an advisor to three governors. Even after his retirement in 1995, he continued as an advocate for greater multicultural awareness at UVM — and as a saxophonist in the local music scene.

“We’ve lost two giants,” lamented Hal Colston, a longtime friend of both Tucker and McCrorey. “They’re the kind of men you don’t just replace.”

But as their deaths mark the end of an era in Vermont’s civil rights movement, the question does present itself: Who, if anyone, will succeed Tucker and McCrorey? At a time when people of color are the fastest-growing demographic in many parts of the state, surely someone should represent their interests to public officials and the media.

Colston, who founded Good News Garage and NeighborKeepers, is a logical candidate for the position. Although more mild mannered than Tucker, he exposed the problem of racial profiling with a local op-ed piece that detailed his experiences with the Burlington Police Department. He got national publicity — for Good News Garage — with a recent appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” He’s both an advocate for Vermont’s African American community and a role model in it.

But whoever steps up to carry on the legacy of Tucker and McCrorey may be looking at a slightly different job description. Vermont’s growing population of “people of color” has never been more fragmented, nor more divided by differences in language, ethnicity, life experience and cultural identity. Is it possible, or fair, to seek out the next generation of leaders in a community that includes Bhutanese, Thais, Vietnamese, Congolese, Sudanese, Iraqis, Somali Bantus and others? It’s ironic that this variety presents a challenge to diversity education, and to present and potential civil rights leaders, in the state.

Clearly, race relations in Vermont have improved dramatically since Tucker blocked the Ku Klux Klan from coming to Burlington. Or when McCrorey came to the aid of a Northeast Kingdom black minister whose house was fired upon in 1968 — an incident known as the “Irasburg Affair.” But in many respects, today’s people of color face hurdles no less daunting and pernicious than those Tucker and McCrorey confronted.

Consider the dearth of racial and ethnic diversity in state and local government. Currently, just three people of color serve in elected office in Vermont: Republican State Sen. Randy Brock of St. Albans, Progressive City Councilor Clarence Davis of Burlington and Democratic State Rep. Kesha Ram of Burlington.

“There are … many more people like me, with similar or differing views, who have an important perspective to add to the political discourse,” says Ram, a 23-year-old of Indian descent who was UVM’s first minority to serve as student body president. “I’ve had young women and young people of color the state over tell me that having me in the Statehouse changes their ability to envision themselves staying in Vermont, and maybe even engaging in politics.”

Many young Vermonters of color are also part of another rapidly growing sector of the population: those in the criminal justice system. Vermont, the second whitest state in the country, has more African Americans in jail per capita than any other state — except Iowa. In Vermont, 13 percent of all black males are behind bars, according to the Vermont Human Rights Commission. While efforts are underway to determine the reasons for this gross disparity — including an ongoing study of racial profiling by police officers in Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski and at UVM — explanations remain elusive. So do long-term solutions.

Again, the small numbers and fragmented nature of Vermont’s community of color make addressing such issues more difficult. Dalib Bulle, a Somali Bantu who works as a liaison for recent African arrivals, puts it this way: “Getting into political stuff is a little too much right now. There is no way you can be part of a political thing if you cannot even get a job.”

Moreover, tensions often arise when new immigrants encounter an existing minority population. “There seems to be a mutual distrust among native-born black Americans and the black immigrants,” confirms Vaughn Carney, a black lawyer who for years cohosted the community-access TV program “Minority Report” with Tucker and McCrorey. “I think it has to do with the cultural differences … Are we a monolithic community? No. There’s no center, no focal point, no there there.”

Like Colston, Carney, 62, looks like a natural heir apparent in the Vermont black community. He emceed Tucker’s memorial service and described himself as “the squire to John and Larry’s knighthoods.” But he laments the dearth of younger leaders and, in an earlier interview, noted the challenge of getting African Americans under 40 engaged locally in the fight for racial justice.

“For minority kids, Vermont is a great place to be from,” said Carney, noting that his two sons likely will not return to this state when they graduate from college. “To the extent that I can get young people to step up and voice these kinds of concerns in a public way will determine the legacy of John and Larry.”

Wanda Hines understands all too well the challenges of finding young leaders within Burlington’s community of color. An African American woman whose family moved to Burlington in 1963, she knows what it’s like to be “that dark spot against the wall” and how it can leave people feeling disenfranchised.

“When we look at questions of leadership, it’s hard to do anything when you’re feeling alienated and isolated,” Hines says. “You don’t see a lot of African Americans coming out. You know why? Because they’re defeated. They don’t want to be engaged.”

Hines, who directs Burlington’s Social Equity Investment Project, is working to change that. Her project’s mission is to seek out and support new and emerging leaders within the community of color, and help them facilitate positive social change.

Hines herself has called attention to minority issues for decades. Especially when she ran the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, from 1995 to 2007, she was the de facto spokesperson for Burlington’s African American community.

According to Hines, Vermont’s minority population has finally reached “a tipping point” where their numbers can no longer be ignored. She predicts that when the 2010 census is completed, it will show that people of color exceed 10 percent of Burlington’s population.

“I can feel it. But then again,” she jokes, “I’ve been here so long, I’m happy just to see anyone else with a suntan.”

What needs to change? According to Hines, sometimes just the little things, such as more community outreach. For example, she notes that the City of Burlington has a registry of minority contractors so that a certain percentage of all city-contracted work goes to minority-owned businesses. But, she adds, there are only four names on that list. Why? There’s no system in place for seeking out new ones.

Additionally, Hines says, Vermont’s media need more people of color. Most local news outlets, including Seven Days, have none working in editorial positions.

Carney and Colston say it’s important for white allies to “step up” and address racial injustice themselves. Colston, who recently declared he was “done” speaking at Martin Luther King Jr. Day events, says, “I spend most of my time making white folks feel safe and comfortable. And I think that’s true for most people of color.”

There are some glimmers of progress. At UVM, students of color make up 12 percent of the incoming freshman class — the largest proportion in the school’s history — and a young, white woman from Massachusetts has begun an antiracism group on campus called “Aspiring Allies.”

“I pray that more white brothers and sisters will find their courage to speak up to injustice and stand on the side of truth,” Colston says. “That’s when we’ll have real change in this country. Until then, it’s just going to be business as usual.”

Spoken like a true leader.

Vermont Shows Its Colors

Who are Vermont’s next-generation activists? Many people are working under the radar to effect social change and give voice to Vermont’s least empowered. What follows is a sampling of some of them — individuals who are, in their own ways, taking up the torches of Tucker and McCrorey.

Not long after Daniello “Dan” Balón arrived in Vermont a year ago, he gave a speech to a group of Vermonters and asked them to name the most prominent Asian American in the state. Balón cast a wide net, including government officials, company CEOs, and presidents of local colleges and universities. The crowd couldn’t come up with a single name.

That’s not surprising. When Balón sits in meetings with fellow administrators in the Burlington School District, he’s typically the only person of color at the table. A Filipino American who moved to Vermont from Washington, D.C., in November 2008 — he grew up in the Bay Area and previously worked at the University of Maryland — Balón now serves as director of diversity and equity for the state’s largest and most racially diverse school district.

As the only full-time school employee addressing issues of racial justice, Balón has his work cut out for him. At last count, 52 different languages were spoken among Burlington’s 3600 students, who hail from more than 60 countries. One in four Burlington students now self-identifies as a “person of color” and/or “multiracial.” That proportion is even higher in some of the city’s elementary schools. Yet, just 3 percent of the district’s teachers are nonwhite. Out of 10 principals districtwide, Balón notes, only one is a person of color.

Balón says it’s not unusual for him to encounter racism, even among well-educated and well-intentioned people. At a recent planning meeting, for example, someone came up to him and asked, “So, what language is it that you Asians speak?”

“Overall, it’s a welcoming place,” Balón says. “I’ve learned to be patient and gracious.”

He’s also learned to choose his words carefully. Echoing a common sentiment heard among people of color in Vermont, Balón says, “I have to be very calculating and thoughtful in negotiating those spaces that are predominantly white. When I’m in that space, I know that what I say, people hear for different reasons.”

Still, Balón isn’t shy about calling out institutional racism when he sees it. “It’s always a struggle, but I’m used to it,” he says. “My English is pretty good.”

Sometimes language is a barrier for Harka Khadka and Madhu Neupane. Not that they don’t understand or speak English well. Rather, when some white Vermonters hear their Nepali accents, they often assume that the men are uneducated. Says Neupane, a college grad, “If I have to make that person understand that I speak English, then it’s going to take me a couple of months to reach them.”

Khadka and Neupane both work as advocates for the 300 or so Bhutanese who began arriving in Vermont in 2008. The single biggest challenge facing their community, they explain, is that half of the local Bhutanese have no formal schooling whatsoever. Many more lack employment necessities, such as reading, writing and computer skills.

Although both men are employed by the Burlington School District to help Nepali-speaking families adjust to life in Vermont, they admit that their work extends far beyond their official job descriptions: They help community members fill out job applications and pay bills, serve as translators, and even explain unique aspects of mainstream culture — which is itself a challenge for two men who’ve been in this country only since 2008 themselves. As Neupane says good-naturedly, “We do not have our weekends to ourselves.”

In one respect, Sara Martinez de Osaba has it easier than many people of color in Vermont — that is, until she opens her mouth and speaks her mind.

“Even though my skin is light brown, I can blend in sometimes,” says Martinez de Osaba, the daughter of a Peruvian mother and Spanish father. “But when I hear things that are offensive and I say something, people know, ‘Oh! She’s not one of us.’”

Martinez de Osaba serves as a diversity outreach specialist for AmeriCorps, working primarily with families of color in Burlington’s Old North End. She moved to Vermont six years ago from East Oakland, where the homicide rate was two people per week.

“Life being so cheap was taking a toll on me,” she says. “I didn’t want to raise a child in a place where that was normal.”

Still, Martinez de Osaba says the same degree of hopelessness she saw plaguing low-income families in Oakland is also evident among multigenerational Vermonters in the Old North End.

“My work is to connect with those families and teach them that they do play a huge role in their children’s lives,” she says. “In some ways, it’s been easier working with the immigrant families, because they don’t have nine generations of being told, ‘No, you’re not part of the system.’”

As with Khadka and Neupane, much of Martinez de Osaba’s work falls outside the purview of her “official” duties. For example, she recently met with a group of foreign-born housekeepers who told her they were being discriminated against by a “large Burlington employer.” (She declined to say which one.) When she asked the women the reason for the discrimination, they all pointed to the color of their skin.

Fortunately, after the employer learned that Martinez de Osaba was organizing a protest by the housekeepers, the offending supervisor was replaced. Still, she says, it shouldn’t take the threat of a public demonstration for a major Vermont employer to do the right thing.

“I think we need to progress beyond that,” she says. “It’s 2009 and it’s not OK for employers to mistreat refugees just because of a language barrier or the color of their skin.”

Another emerging leader is Jeanine Bunzigiye, who’s been working for the Burlington Housing Authority for the last two and a half years. She also serves as a home/school liaison for African families who speak French, Swahili and Lingala. Like other such liaisons, Bunzigiye's work in the community isn’t limited to her employment. She gets phone calls at all hours of the day and night seeking help or advice.

“It’s more than just 20 hours a week. We do almost everything,” she says. “We really are the voices in the community.”

Yacouba “Jacob” Bogre may represent Vermont’s largest organization of people of color. He’s the executive director of the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, which serves 3000 people from 29 countries. Most live in Chittenden County.

Bogre, who’s originally from Burkina Faso, has been in the job since January. Though the vast majority of his clients have adjusted well to life in Vermont, Bogre says that a small percentage has faced serious challenges, such as mental-health issues and run-ins with the law.

For the most part those issues, he believes, are the result of untreated past trauma, including encounters with torture, genocide and other atrocities. Recently, Bogre has been working with a new community group, New England Survivors of Torture and Trauma, to help his members get the long-overdue counseling and treatment they need.

Bogre notes that his work has been a learning experience, especially when it comes to speaking to the press.

“Sometimes I’m very afraid to talk about racism,” he says, “because sometimes the media will take your words and turn them around and create a bigger problem.”

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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