About 30 people showed up at the Hinesburg Town Hall on Feb. 1 to celebrate the beginning of Black History Month by raising the Black Lives Matter flag.
The flag will fly outside the Town Hall until the Monday after Juneteenth, June 19.
Student speakers emphasized that while the symbol is a great start, actions will speak louder.
“This month is Black History Month – the shortest month of the year. But it is white history year again and again,” student Elyse Martin-Smith said.
Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when freedom from slavery was finally declared in Texas — more than a month after the end of the Civil War and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, Hinesburg’s selectboard chair Phil Pouech explained.
Flying the Black Lives Matter flag at the Town Hall “might in some slight way give small comfort to Black, Indigenous and people of color,” Pouech said.
Systemic racism requires action not by those who have suffered from it but by those who have benefited from the status quo, he said.
Martin-Smith, a senior at Champlain Valley High School and a student member of the Champlain Valley School District board, said she collected signatures for a petition that helped to have the flag raised at the school in 2019.
Martin-Smith is a member of Racial Alliance Committee, a CVU student organization working on racial justice issues.
As she worked to collect signatures for the flag-raising petition, she had to defend the phrase Black Lives Matter, a phrase that doesn’t even say that Black lives should be equal, Martin-Smith said — “It’s only stating the most basic human rights and I don’t think that should be controversial, arguable or politicized.”
For the community to move forward on the issue of racism, she said it was important for people to recognize their privilege. She acknowledged that she had privileges including being economically advantaged and having lighter skin.
“The fact that you have privileges does not make you inherently a bad person, but it makes it so there are some hardships you do not even have to think about,” Martin-Smith said.
It is important to recognize privilege and speak up for those who don’t have the same, she said.
Martin-Smith encouraged the group gathered to celebrate the flag raising to keep their feet on the gas. Small steps matter, she said, giving an example of speaking up when someone makes xenophobic comments connecting the Asian community to the coronavirus as has been done in the past year.
The flag was raised by Hinesburg Community School siblings Sion and Sonnet Alford-Brathwaite.
CVU ninth grader Nisha Hickok, a member of the Hinesburg racial equity group, said the flag demonstrates a commitment by the town of Hinesburg to change — but to make this change it is necessary for people to educate themselves about racial disparities.
The Hinesburg racial equity group is an unofficial town committee formed by the seletectboard to examine racial equity in the community.
“If we don’t truly understand where inequality started, it’s impossible to dig up the root of the problem,” Hickok said.
The Black Lives Matter flag will be a meaningless symbol “if extensive adjustments to our community are not made,” she said.
Hickok said she had lived in Hinesburg her whole life and for most her life she has felt as though no one was listening to her or cared.
“Today that sense of loneliness is a little less intimidating,” she said.