According to Olivia Miller, if she’s not actively fighting racism, she feels complicit in the problem.
This is one reason why Miller, a sophomore at Champlain Valley Union High School, joined the Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network — a statewide group of young people from different counties who advocate against racism in education.
The network recently won a $1,000 grant through a Vermont Community Foundation program called Spark Connecting Community.
Miller and fellow members hope to use the money for a book initiative that would connect members with younger Vermonters, to read and discuss books amplifying diverse voices.
Members plan to (virtually) visit elementary and middle school classrooms across the state to participate in activities, and to discuss books by authors of color, featuring characters who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of color, or BIPOC.
“I think it’s important to start teaching and talking about racism at an early age,” said Miller. Children as young as preschool and kindergarten age begin to understand identity, and she thinks these conversations should take place as kids formulate other basic skills.
“If we can get young people into anti-racist habits early on, it is likely that these habits will stick with them into adulthood,” she said.
Fellow network members, Addie Lentzler of Arlington Memorial High School and Kyle Mitchell of Middlebury Union High School, discussed some of the reasons why they joined the network and how they hope to put the grant money to good use.
“Introducing anti-racism to children allows them to grow as learners,” said Mitchell. For him, anti-racism is important because the word emphasizes action.
“Often people feel scared about mentioning the topic of racism. There’s a fear of, ‘Am I going to be judged for what I say?’” he said.
He hopes the network creates a space for young Vermonters to continue having tough conversations.
Anti-racism can be a commitment, a reminder to identify privilege and subconscious racism within yourself, or something else, he said.
To Lentzler, the term anti-racist emphasizes a sense of urgency.
“In a way, being silent adds to the problem,” she said. “Racism exists in institutions and society so deeply, that if we ignore it, it’s never going to go away. White people need to be actively anti-racist if we want to change society. We all need to be active in this.”
Some potential titles they’re hoping to purchase include, “The Colors of Us,” by Karen Katz, a vibrant picture book about a little girl who learns about the differences to celebrate amongst skin colors when she sets out to paint a portrait of herself.
“A is for Activist,” by Innosanto Nagara is another potential option; the picture book offers kids alliteration, rhyming and illustrations celebrating equality and social justice.
But the students hope to further their initiatives beyond book discussions. Other goals on the network’s agenda include changing statewide curriculum to include ethnic studies and more diverse classes in high schools; removing student resource officers from schools — an ongoing discussion at CVU — and eliminating policies that target students and staff of color.
Students across the state in social justice and anti-racist school clubs formed the network this summer following protests over racially motivated police violence and the deaths of Black people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both killed by police.
Miller noted the importance of student voices in deconstructing racist systems in education.
“It’s important for us, as students, to discover our voices and try to make change in issues that we see in schools that maybe adults don’t see,” she said. “I think it’s great we’re all passionate about something.”
For Lentzler, the network provides a support system and makes her feel less overwhelmed in the fight against racism. “I think the possibilities for what we can accomplish are endless,” she said.
Eight of Vermont’s 14 counties are represented in the network so far, but Miller and fellow members hope to expand to include every county. Interested students, teachers or student groups should contact email@example.com.