Stowe officials are pondering whether to go from simply saying all people are welcome, like nearly half the towns in the state have done, to dedicating long hours putting words to action, like roughly a dozen towns have done.
The selectboard, at its May 10 meeting, heard a pitch from Shalini Suryanarayana, who works in the Vermont Office of Racial Equity, about an organization called IDEAL.
The acronym stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Action, Leadership, and Suryanarayana noted that, when it comes to the “action” part, much of that happens more efficiently at the local level than the state level, which formed the Office of Racial Equity only four years ago and has been described by Xusana Davis, the state’s executive director of racial equity, as tackling urgent yet “paradoxically” slow work — breaking down generations of thought patterns and inculcating new ones.
“As a state, we’re able to do quite a few things, but the truth is, I think, at the local level you’ll be able to help us move the needle in terms of advancing equity initiatives a lot faster than if we are trying to push it out from the statewide level,” Suryanarayana said.
She noted the state is doing it in the face of a more diverse population, however slightly — she said the 2020 Census showed a 55 percent increase in Asian American and Pacific Islanders, a 68 percent increase in Hispanics and Latinos, and 54 percent more Black Americans. At the same time, she said, the population of white people dropped 3 percent.
“When we’re inclusive and equitable at the local level, it strengthens the economy. When we engage with women and minority owned businesses, it increases their chances of living in a strong and thriving democracy,” she said. “When you have communities that are more socially diverse, it actually builds civic cohesion and democratic participation.”
Suryanarayana said in the schools, that cohesion goes both ways, with even straight, able-bodied white males — perhaps the opposite demographic of diverse — performing better academically when there’s a greater mix of ethnicities, genders and cultures.
She said 110 Vermont communities have adopted some sort of declaration of inclusion — Stowe did it last fall and some 40 towns have done so since — which she said represents a shifting of priorities in Vermont.
“Communities in Vermont are really starting to sit up and make some noise about being ready to work on diversity initiatives,” Suryanarayana said.
Lily white and affluent Stowe had its moment of reckoning in 2018 when the town was jolted by incidents of racism and bigotry.
First, 350 kids and their families in Stowe for a weeklong summer camp were reportedly subjected to people driving by with their windows rolled down and making obscene gestures at kids of color playing mini golf, calling out racial slurs like “spic,” the N-word, and “monkeys.”
That same year, reports came out of swastikas being displayed on school property — one of them was carved into a desk at Stowe Middle School and another was painted onto athletic fields at Peoples Academy.
Those incidents, as well as the cumulative effect of history behind them, led to the creation of the Stowe-Morrisville Coalition, which eventually led to the formation of a group calling itself Racial Equity Alliance of Lamoille, or REAL.
Suryanarayana said the similar-sounding IDEAL is an opt-in program, and the group isn’t out there recruiting people to join. Instead, she said, the group is looking for communities that are “ready to roll up their sleeves.”
So far, 14 Vermont towns have joined, none of them in Lamoille County.
Stowe selectboard member Paco Aumand had asked for Suryanarayana to present before the board at its May 10 meeting.
“This presentation was really at the request of the selectboard so that we could get some understanding of, not only the importance of these issues, but what resources are out there,” Aumand said. “I don’t have a sense, because this isn’t community-driven yet.”
The selectboard didn’t take any action on joining IDEAL yet and used Suryanarayana’s presentation more as grist for reflection. She said if the town were to join, it would require three people from the local government — town or school, from boards to police chiefs to superintendents — to participate in monthly meetings around the state.
She said if signing a Declaration of Inclusion like 109 other towns is the easy first step, this is the tough second one.
“Just voting to put those words up is one thing, but actually taking the action to show that you genuinely mean it, that you’re not just saying something that looks really nice, but that you’re ready to make sure your community reflects those values and acts and behave in a way that supports those values, is hard work, for sure,” she said. “I don’t want to scare anyone, but I want to be real about it.”
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