This Monday, Jan. 17, there will be countless commemorations honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the greatest civil rights leaders in the world, who was assassinated in 1968. Across Vermont, several groups working to increase justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, have taken Dr. King’s legacy to heart, and are mobilizing progressive community action.
Their mission, vision and methods are distinctive and innovative. They all share a moral imperative, and they believe that making Vermont a more welcoming place for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic group, gender, race, or religious beliefs, is crucial for Vermont’s very future.
Following are profiles of three of these groups.
NAACP student chapter at Castleton University
In spring 2021, Castleton University (CU) became the first university in Vermont to have an NAACP chapter, and it has become a shining example of students, administration, and faculty collaborating to create a welcoming culture on campus.
As Dr. Rich Clark, professor of political science at CU, and faculty advisor to the NAACP students, said: “In the wake of protests following the brutal murder of George Floyd … and too many others, [the University] made a pledge to combat systemic racism through education.
“Our students responded by forming a group that petitioned the national NAACP chapter for recognition as an official chapter. Student leadership created this organization.”
The chapter’s current leader, a business major named Tajae Edwards, elaborated, “With the support of the University, what started as an informal discussion group turned into a focused way to implement solutions. Today we have an organized structure, with committees for marketing, events, and fundraising, all led by students. And, we are a safe resource for BIPOC students to share their concerns.” Edwards hopes to continue his education and earn an MBA. “I want to use my business experience and expertise to do good for society,” he explained.
No one would dispute he’s off to a great start.
Vermont Declaration of Inclusion team
The campaign begun by Vermont business leaders Al Wakefield and Bob Harnish early last year, to have Vermont adopt a declaration of inclusion, which they drafted last February, has enjoyed multiple triumphs.
The most notable occurred last May, when Governor Phil Scott signed a proclamation of diversity and inclusion for the state. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce are among other champions.
The current declaration of inclusion reads, in part: “[Town] condemns racism and welcomes all persons, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, age, or disability, and wants everyone to feel safe and welcome in our community.”
It has become the centerpiece of a campaign to communicate why race, equity, diversity, and inclusion is crucial to Vermont’s economic future.
To date, the team of five volunteers — which includes myself and retired Rutland attorney Norman Cohen — has succeeded in persuading 25 towns to adopt the declaration. The 25 towns include several in the Mountain Times readership: Brandon, Mendon, Middlebury, Middletown Springs, Pittsford, Rutland City, Rutland Town, Shrewsbury, West Rutland, Town of Woodstock, and Woodstock Village. All told, the 25 towns comprise about 100,000 people — or 15% of Vermont’s population.
Cohen, who tracks the team’s outreach and progress, exudes positivity: “We mine our contacts, work the phones, work the emails, and work the Zooms – despite no compensation, no donations, no fundraising!”
The team itself is a snapshot of multigenerational diversity, inclusion, and collaboration. Wakefield, who is Black, is a former Manhattan executive who relocated to Vermont more than 40 years ago and ran his global executive recruiting business from Mendon. Harnish, who lives in Pittsford, was a leader in the hospitality business here for most of his career. Elicia Pinsonault, a recent MBA who works in the advancement office at Castleton University and is president of Rutland Young Professionals, joined the team in the fall, helping to transform basic documents into polished presentation materials.
As Wakefield emphasized, “I would love to see Vermont recognized as being the Green State for the vital cultivation of All (its) people, regardless of color.”
The Vermont Professionals of Color Network
Formed in January 2019 as a support network for Black & Brown Professionals & Businesses, Vermont Professionals of Color Network (vtpoc.net) now has a more definitive mission and vision, led by a board of directors and elected officers.
Founder Tino Rutanhira said: “Vermont Professionals of Color Network aims to build opportunities to improve the experience, representation and success of BIPOC professionals and businesses in this state and to usher in a new era of BIPOC professional mobility.
“We believe that systems that are failing communities of color fail all of us alike, Black, Brown, and White. The goal of our organization is to eliminate the economic and professional gaps between White people and people of color, because prosperity starts with opportunities to climb the economic ladder. A prosperous BIPOC community is a good thing for all of Vermont.”
Over the past three years, VT PoC has achieved several critical milestones. Those include the launch of the Vermont Health Equity Initiative (VHEI) – among the first BIPOC-led community organizations dedicated to health equity in Vermont. Through VHEI, VT PoC administered over 3,500 Pfizer vaccines at its BIPOC vaccine clinics. VT PoC also revamped its website, which now better connects the BIPOC community through an interactive business directory, a jobs board, and an events calendar.
These three groups — the NAACP student chapter at Castleton, the Declaration of Inclusion Team, and The Vermont Professionals of Color Network — inspire us with their courage, drive, and ingenuity. That they are working tirelessly to boost justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in Vermont is living proof of Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”