It was with infectious hope that Lydia Clemmons explained the new work and opportunities a $100,000 recent grant from the Bay and Paul Foundation has allowed the Clemmons Family Farm to pursue.
Calling at 9:30 p.m., her time, from Tanzania, where she does nutrition education work with teenage girls, she was bubbling over with plans, and potential contacts to share about intersectional art programming in Vermont. And of course stories about her fascinating and philanthropic family.
Clemmons Family Farm is both a farm and a cultural nonprofit that coordinates a black-led network of 150 artists throughout Vermont, who are all ethnically or geographically connected with the African diaspora.
Started by Jack and Lydia Clemmons, a trailblazing African American couple who purchased a Charlotte farmstead in 1962, their daughter Lydia Clemmons is the current president. The farm is, according to its website, “in a gradual transition from a private family-owned farm to a non-profit organization that offers K-12 ethnic studies and educational enrichment programs, and community-building engagements.”
Clemmons Family farm has a long history of being a hub of public good—according to the younger Lydia Clemmons, her parents “traveled around the U.S. and Sweden in the 1950s and Africa in the 1980s-1990s, and had joyful experiences meeting new people, learning about new cultures, and developing a love for art—in spite of what were often dicey and sometimes dangerous contexts of traveling while Black.
“They took all of that travel experience to Vermont and shared it with their community in the old Authentica shop and also in what the Clemmons Family Farm is doing today.”
The grant will allow them to begin work on several projects Clemmons described with enthusiasm, including a pilot workshop to train the artists-in-residence on how to teach tough conversations—such as discussing slavery—especially in Vermont where there may be one, two, or no children of color in the classroom.
She also plans on allocating grant money to expand human services to the artists. Black Vermonters face a multitude of challenges that white Vermonters do not face, like discrimination from police officers, housing discrimination, and lack of access to racially competent healthcare, she explained. Because people make their best work when they’re healthy, financially secure and housed, Clemmons plans on coordinating resources to make sure the artists-in-residence have what they need to focus on making excellent work and delivering educational enrichment to Vermont students.
According to Clemmons, there has been more interest in the state on accurate and complete history lately.
Since Phil Scott mandated ethnic studies in 2019, educators have been reaching out to the nonprofit wanting to update their curriculums, often with no idea where to start.
Clemmons continued “people are craving the ‘human connection’ in curriculum, making artists a natural choice to teach it. Artists allow us to connect with things that make us happy and teach us new ways of looking at things. They inspire us. Art will help students think about, express and feel difficult topics. There’s a lot of pain and resilience in African American history.”
She added that art builds empathy, which makes artists uniquely qualified to teach tough or complicated subjects where a strongly developed sense of empathy is key to understanding the material.
Clemmons hopes to hire Kirya Traber, a nationally awarded playwright, actress and cultural worker, and lead Community Artist in Residence with Lincoln Center Education, to facilitate this workshop. She will guide the artists to deliver a curriculum being developed by the Clemmons Family Farm for K-12 students on African American history through the lens of travel.
The unit might begin, for example, with the transatlantic slave trade, then cover the Jim Crow era, then wrap up with a more modern issue: racial profiling in Vermont.
Clemmons underscored that it mattered deeply to the Family Farm that the joy and dignity of African History be portrayed in curriculum just as much as the more melancholy, enraging, and unjust topics.
“In the pilot workshop, and in all of the workshops,” she continues, “we will be covering content that has both painful history and experiences, as well as joyful and triumphant history and experiences. In the travels pilot workshop, topics like the transatlantic slave ships, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration hold a lot of pain. On the other side, the Great Migration led to the Harlem Renaissance. African-American artists like Maya Angelou and Julian Mayfield traveled to Ghana, and Josephine Baker traveled to France, and honed their art as well as their social activism in those countries.”
Apparently Clemmons’ love of art started early, according to her beloved 2nd grade teacher Nini Crane, who spoke about meeting Lydia and her family.
When Crane first moved to Vermont as a young teacher, they had to hold the 2nd grade class in the gym because of construction. She took advantage of the extra space to put on plays, do large-scale drawings, and otherwise incorporate art into her curriculum, putting her art minor to work.
She remembers Lydia as a “brilliant” student who constantly needed new challenges and kept Crane on her toes coming up with projects interesting enough for her.
On her end, Lydia remembers Crane as an enthusiastic and resourceful teacher who infused art seamlessly into other lessons. Crane’s interest in the black power movement impressed Clemmons as well, giving her some much needed support as one of very few black students in Charlotte elementary in the 1960s.
A particularly tough challenge is the need for black educators—black children perform better on many social and academic metrics when they have racial mirrors, and when surveyed, children of all races report preferring black teachers, Clemmons noted.
Discriminatory hiring practices means many qualified educators of color are kept out of jobs around the nation, and in Vermont the Black and African American population is comparatively small, so the number of educators of color in general is lower. Getting artists in the classroom is a way to create connections and help these artists network so they can pursue more educating opportunities if desired. She also hopes this will help students see themselves as potential change-makers and empower them to address racial disparities in their communities.