Working for Racial Justice

This is a difficult post to write. I’ve struggled with what I should say as a white state senator in Vermont. I aim to make all of my communications with constituents genuine, not the stuff of generic politicians. Just like you, I am an imperfect human being who does not have all the answers. But I always strive to do the right thing, to be the best policy maker, advocate, and person I can be. So please, as you read through my letter, know that, like you, I’m struggling to make sense of an impossibly frightening, unjust, and complex world, and to do my best to make it better for all Vermonters.

The horrific torture and murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and the nationwide protests that it has sparked, has once again laid bare the brutal impact of systemic racism in our country. I know that many of my constituents are scared, angry, or confused, especially as this violence peaks during an already uncertain and stressful time. The combined impact of nationwide unrest and racist violence, a global pandemic that continues to claim lives, and a growing economic crisis, is overwhelming. I also know that many of my constituents want to help, and are showing up for protests, organizing, and supporting the efforts around the country. Your stress, fear, and desire for change are all real, understandable, and admirable. I feel it too.

As an elected official, I know that I bear particular responsibility for both speaking out against injustice and being a leader in creating laws and policies that are just and equitable, and building a system of governance that is accountable and anti-racist. I condemn the police brutality that killed Mr. Floyd and so many black and brown people in our country. The police officers and civilians who are responsible for the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black people in America must be held accountable and brought to justice. Black Lives Matter. Our criminal justice system must underscore this.

I am committed to advancing legislation that will ensure that our criminal justice system, government, and institutions in Vermont are equitable and explicitly anti-racist. Tomorrow, the Senate will take action on a bill that addresses use of deadly force and restraint by police, de-escalation and cross-cultural training for all law enforcement officials, use of police body cameras, and collection of racial data from local police department work. The Senate has already passed several criminal justice reform bills, including a comprehensive Justice Reinvestment Act that revises our furlough and parole system, and invests resources in prevention and rehabilitation measures.

I try to infuse a social justice lens into my policy work as a whole, and have done so for many years. As a school board member I initiated the creation of a Task Force on Racial Bias and Discrimination, and helped amplify a district-wide discussion on racism and discrimination in our local schools. As a state senator, I co-sponsored a bill that took that same work statewide, creating the Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group. I co-sponsored a constitutional amendment that clarifies the prohibition of slavery in Vermont, and have supported many bills and amendments that advance the status and rights of people of color, women, and LGBTQ Vermonters. You can see a list of bills I’ve sponsored here.

As a white woman, I have a particular responsibility to acknowledge my white privilege and to use it appropriately to help dismantle structural racism and amplify the voices and experiences of people of color. I still have much to learn and am committed to doing the work I need to better understand my role and responsibilities in ending racism. It’s hard work, and I hope that if you’re white, you’ll join me in taking it on. Here are some things we can do:

1) Join the work of organizations and groups engaged in racial justice efforts. For example, Showing Up for Racial Justice Middlebury or the Rutland Area NAACP Chapter are both doing good work locally, as are several religious coalitions and student organizations. These groups are organizing regular protests and public actions where you can actively engage with others to show your support for efforts to end racism. If you do decide to attend a public rally, please remember to follow public health protocols: wear a mask, keep your distance from others, stay home if you’re ill or vulnerable, and get tested for COVID-19 to be sure you don’t unwittingly spreading the virus. It’s important to make your voice heard and demand racial justice, and it’s also important to stay safe and stem the spread of COVID-19. If you do stay home, but want to show your support, consider making a donation to an organization doing this work.

2) Read about racism, white privilege, or the experiences of people of color in America. A few books I recommend are How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. For me, reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison in college was an incredible eye-opener for a young woman coming from a small overwhelmingly white town similar to our community. It’s perfect timing to read a new book because many libraries have started curbside pickup services, including the Bixby Library in Vergennes, Ilsley Library in Middlebury, the Huntington Public Library, and others. Or purchase a book locally and pick it up curbside from the Vermont Book Shop or Recycled Reading Vermont.

3) Talk to your children about racism and protest. As a mother, I know it can be really difficult to explain complicated, frightening things to children, so sometimes it feels easier to avoid certain topics. However, it’s really important that we bring our children into the discussion about racism early, and do so with the details and support they need to understand but not be overwhelmed by the topic. Many schools are hosting online discussion forums for students so they can talk with teachers and peers about the current events. The website Raising Race Conscious Children is a good “resource for talking about race with young children,” as is this website from the American Psychological Association. You can also help your children learn about the history of Black people in Vermont by (virtually) visiting the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, which is a National Historic Landmark and Underground Railroad site. Check out this list compiled by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for other historic sites relevant to Black and Indigenous history in the Champlain Valley.

4) Support your friends and neighbors of color. As stressful and frightening the state of the world is for me, I know that it’s much more stressful and frightening for people of color, especially Black Americans. Not only are they dealing with the impact of racism and police brutality, but people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and the economic crisis it has created. For example, the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Vermont has impacted New Americans of color in Winooski, and nationwide African-Americans are the demographic group most vulnerable to dying of COVID-19. Send a note, make a meal, run an errand, post your support, or simply check in with friends and neighbors of color to see how you can support them personally during this difficult time.

If you’re a person of color, tell me what you need from me, your state senator. I am here for you and want your needs, opinions, and advice to inform my actions on your behalf. Black Lives Matter – your life matters. I want you to feel safe, respected, and heard in Vermont.

We need to commit to ending police brutality, ending structural racism, and creating a world centered on justice and equity. We’re all in this together. Let’s do the work. Take care and stay safe.