Community Confronts Racism: Organizations look toward a meaningful, long-term understanding of issues

Since the past spring and early summer, several organizations have initiated events and programs to address and confront an undercurrent of racial tension in the region.

A group of youths calling themselves the Nigger Hanging Redneck Association (NHRA) showed signs of activity in Vernon, Guilford and Brattleboro and at the Brattleboro Union High School (BUHS). Three minors were linked to the NHRA in an incident involving harassment of a group of ethnic minorities at the Brattleboro Transit Center in June.

The issue has been given heightened attention with positive, ardent efforts on the part of various organizations and individual citizens. In the six months since the events, the Alana Community Organization, Youth Services, United Way and the Guilford Community Church have spearheaded efforts, with Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) and BHUS administrators representing the school districts in the endeavor.

Though a slew of initiatives emerged from the administrative and managerial sector of these and other organizations in the community, some have questioned whether this activity actually affected the problem and benefited ethnic minorities.

 

Racial confrontations


According to police reports, Guilford resident Larry C. Pratt, then 17, accompanied by two other young people from that town, continually shouted racial epithets from his car at a group of minorities standing on the street near the Transit Center June 18. Pratt then threatened to shoot one woman, age 18, in the face. When one of the victims spit on his car, Pratt brandished a shotgun. No one was injured.

Pratt and his cohorts were described in court documents as members of the NHRA, and all the youths involved—perpetrators and victims—were enrolled in BUHS at the time of the incident. Pratt was charged with stalking with a deadly weapon, disorderly conduct, giving false information to a law enforcement officer and reckless endangerment.

The penalties for the first two charges were enhanced by the state’s hate crime statutes, which kick in when the conduct in question is alleged to be “maliciously motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived race or color.”

Pratt pleaded guilty to the charges on Nov. 12 and is serving two years of probation. Among other conditions, he is required to attend diversity counseling and to speak to a group or assembly approved by his probation officer about the events of his case, according to Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy K. Shriver.

Also in June, a bicyclist found wooden signs along a dirt road in Vernon spray-painted with the letters “NHRA” on the front and “KKK” on the back. Next to one of these signs was a crate holding nine plastic milk jugs filled with urine, described at the time by Vernon Police Chief Kevin Turnley as “possible racist-motivated material.” The incident is still under investigation, Turnley said.

“Southern Vermont has a history of racially inspired incidents over the years. This is just one in a series that has taken place,” said Curtiss Reed, executive director of Alana. “Obviously what’s disturbing about this particular incident is the name): ‘Nigger Hanging Redneck Association.’ There was an implicit attempt to do harm.”

The perceived severity of this crime has forced community members not to treat it as an isolated event, Reed feels, but rather to examine what can be done in terms of long-term healing and solutions for ignorance.

“There’s been a qualitatively better and different response relative to this incident—a response from community organizations that is more broadly based than narrow,” explained Reed, who called the response from community organizations, politicians and businesses “a paradigm shift.”

“We want to be put on the map not as the town with the NHRA, but the town that rallied its resources to ensure another NHRA doesn’t emerge,” Reed said.

Shela Linton, an advocate for social justice for Alana, reiterated this point. “We’re not just saying, ‘That’s a person-of-color issue and they are being discriminated against.’ We’re now realizing how racism, whether an individual is white, black, brown or yellow, is impacting all of us. And citizens want to get involved and make a change.”

Linton describes Alana as an organization that works to “strengthen fairness and diversity in Vermont communities by eliminating prejudice and discrimination of all kinds. It is dedicated to educating community members about the realities, challenges and skills needed to thrive in a world of differences.”

The nonprofit has partnered with the Guilford Community Church to organize several discussions on the topic of race, first held at the church, then moved to larger venues such as BHUS and the Boys and Girls Club in Brattleboro.

In one discussion group, minority teens sat in the middle of a circle at the Boys and Girls Club and non-minority community members in the “outer circle,” where they could ask questions about race. (“What it’s like to grow up in Brattleboro as a minority?” or “What challenges have you faced?” for example.)

 

Creating safe environments

 

Linton, who has facilitated such discussions with Guilford Community Church Pastor Lise Sparrow, described the groups as “proactive in providing the community as well as the school district with the tools and skills needed to help create a more safe environment for our children.”

“As an individual who was born and raised in this community, and who has endured a lot of racism since I was five years old, this is the first time that I have felt a movement of understanding of ‘yes, this [problem] exists’,” Linton said.

“Before the NHRA came out, many of us were adverse, many of us were in denial, even the people of color wanted to pretend it didn’t exist sometimes,” she said. “They may have thought, Well, it happens everywhere. We want to minimize the situation because for so long, many of us have been marginalized and we don’t see an end [to it].”

“The thing that’s more specific to Larry Pratt is that there’s been some funding given to Youth Services, the Boys and Girls Club, and Guilford Church for overcoming violence. The money is funneled through the Guilford Church because those young men are from Guilford, to create what are called circles of support and accountability," or COSAs, "for students who commit violent acts,” said Sparrow, whose church began the first high-profile public response to Pratt and the NHRA through these discussions.

These COSAs, modeled after the program the Center for Restorative Justice has in place for people leaving prison in Vermont, are "intended to encourage in the perpetrators a deeper appreciation for the impact of their harmful actions, to give them new ways to understand their own circumstances and those of others, and to establish ways of expressing remorse and reconciling with those they have harmed," Sparrow said.

“We have a Thursday evening social event going on where teens can gather at the Boys and Girls Club in more positive activity,” Sparrow continued. “Also, we’re working on getting transportation from Guilford to Brattleboro so that teens can take advantage of things going on there.”

Guilford teens tend to be very isolated, Sparrow added. “That factor is part of the same issue of poverty and isolation that contributes to some of the frustration and anger that build up in these kids. They have a lot of struggles and they may take it out on people of color, unfortunately.”

On Sept. 24, one of the Guilford teens apologized for his actions in an anonymous letter to the community that appeared in the Brattleboro Reformer. The newspaper confirmed the letter's authenticity.

“It has been four months since this happened, and it has been difficult. I am not allowed to leave my house or do anything. I have to stay out of town. I feel like I shouldn't be accepted because of the stupid stuff I did. I should have never gotten myself into this mess,” the teen wrote.
“Since then, I have hung out with African-Americans and got along with them. I have been going to meetings with the school, trying to help out in any way, because I think the town really deserves it. I have so much more to work on, like my education and my family, and so much more.”

 

Other initiatives

 

In addition to providing discussion forums to explore issues of hate crime victimization and possible roots of racist behavior, organizers cite other initiatives put in place last summer.

The Future Search Conference will convene 64 regional policymakers and influential figures from all sectors of society to decide what should be done to sustain a prolonged battle to eradicate racism. The representatives, many of whom have already been chosen, will meet for three days in February and include representatives from WSESU, Families First, United Way, Alana and the faith community, and the town manager of Brattleboro.

Also on board is Diana Wahle, whose Racial Issues Planning Team, a response to last spring’s events, began planning the Future Search, a conference structured on an international model for bringing together diverse groups to envision common goals for a community and develop strategies to achieve those goals.

“Future Search moves us quickly into the development of a long-term plan to address the roots of discrimination and prejudice in our community,” Wahle said. “The process begins by putting the whole community system into a room to discover and discuss common ground and future focus. At the completion of the conference, action groups initiate incentives, and finally, action incentives are given support and follow-up reviews. Future Search maintains a global context with local actions; it depends upon public responsibility and self-management.”

In the No Bystander movement, a program designed by Youth Services, hundreds of people in the community sign a vow pledging to intervene anytime they see racial prejudice, to ensure the safety of the youth involved and to recruit others to do the same. The symbolic effort aims to put the issue of hate directly in front of people and ask them to promise be part of the solution.

“I wouldn’t say the NHRA incident blew the top off [of awareness of racism], but it put things in perspective,” said Allyson Villars, executive director of Youth Services, which operates a host of social-service programs directed toward youth and their families. ldquo;There were racial tensions, and maybe we needed to do more than deal with individual incidents and look at race as an issue. I don’t know that anybody thought they had the answer but everybody felt we needed to spend more attention and time on it.” Villars called the No Bystander movement an indication “that people have decided to not let this go.”

 

Concrete actions

 

What happened to the NHRA perpetrators and Pratt in particular, as well as how the BUHS school community is faring, might serve as a better barometer of progress than events that revolve primarily around talking and symbolism.

“The internal discipline that occurred included suspensions and a restorative justice process for those students to re-enter the school, or, if it was deemed that the students were inappropriate to continue at the school, then that was the case,” WSESU Superintendent of Schools Ron Stahley said.

When asked to elaborate, Stahley stated, “I’m not going to speak too much about that.” BUHS Principal Jim Day was unavailable for comment as well.

Sparrow worked directly with the school in handling some aspects of retribution and was able to provide firsthand comment on what was done.

“I sat in with each kid on the process that the school was using. Each young man is in a very different situation,” she said.

Sparrow describes restorative justice as “a reflective process where [perpetrators] are asked to reflect on the impact of their behavior on the community and asked to think about how they might make restitution and show remorse to the specific people who were harmed. One of the young men wrote a public letter to the community showing remorse and apologizing.”

Sparrow described the conditions that the perpetrators must meet before being allowed to return to BUHS as “strict gates,” but “courts were ultimately responsible for what the youths’ punishment was,” said Reed.
“Was the spirit the letter of the law? There might be minor changes needed in the way that [the high school] responded. Particularly, they might have wanted to find parents sooner than they did in this particular case. But in terms of their decisions about discipline, they exercised their responsibilities very judiciously. Obviously they can’t place a judge in a court of law.”

 

Looking ahead

 

Two other measures at BUHS have addressed some of the racial issues.

Alana’s Strategies to Thrive program has brought speakers of color to BUHS like Latina novelist Ann Hagman Cardinal of Morrisville and Wes Holloway, a black American and vice president of diversity for the Golub Corporation, which owns the Price Chopper supermarket chain.

“The dual purpose of the program is to a) expose students, particularly minority students, to nontraditional careers as one means to encourage them to set goals and remain committed to completing high school and continuing onto college and b) break the negative stereotypes white students have of ethnic and racial minorities,” Reed said.

Several workshops have taken place under the umbrella of a voluntary diversity training program for white staff members, including school administrators. Reed said that the school system independently uses a consultant, Mary Gannon, who is also affiliated with Alana.

Henry “Junie” Pereira, a special education teacher at BUHS who recently began to chair Alana’s governing board, served as one of two organizers of a June 26 “circle of understanding” that drew more than 100 people to BUHS to discuss race, racism and the response of the community to the NHRA and the ensuing racial incidents.
Pereira said there is a still long way to go to achieve concrete results and posed some questions for the community to debate: “What is prejudice? What prejudices do we hold? How does white privilege permeate through every individual existence, especially the Caucasian population?”

Pereira said the community’s response to the incidents has shown that “people are feeling like they want to explore” those questions.

“And the next couple of years we will continue to see events and activities addressing that,” he said. “We are setting goals on how the community can address these issues — not just this year or the next, but the next five years or so. It’s a work in progress.”

 

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 edition of The Commons newspaper www.commonsnews.org Published here with the author’s permission.

Comments

The below comment was

The below comment was submitted anonymously. Strong preference is given to comments that are signed with the author's real name and town. (E-mail address is great too.)

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At least two other factors could be involved in keeping minorities out of Vermont: the lack of jobs, unless you already are part of a family farm, etc., that's already established; and the "ruralness" and distance from where they are used to living.

Thanks for commenting.

Thanks for commenting.

I agree that people of color often prefer to live in towns and cities where significant numbers of people of color live. This makes sense, considering our historically white-run nation's history of racism (think slavery in the 1800s, and the vastly disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in U.S. prisons, and the military, and in poverty, today).

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Here are some 2007 numbers from www.census.gov:

Total population, and percentage of population that is Latino, African American, Asian, Native American, or "some other race" (other than white). (Holyoke and Springfield, Mass. are both under an hour's drive from Vermont.)

Holyoke, Mass.
40,000
57 percent

Springfield, Mass.
150,000
80 percent

Vermont
621,000
3 percent

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On your other points (the supposed lack of jobs, and the need to know someone to find a job): there is some truth to these. But the unemployment rate in Vermont is far below the national average. And poor people come from poor nations to work in the U.S. all the time, even if they don't speak English and don't know anyone. Poverty makes people take extreme measures.

I wish the governments of Vermont and the U.S. would do more to welcome more poor people from around the world. Changing the work week from 40 to 32 hours would almost eliminate unemployment. Passing laws to help workers form unions would raise wages.

The U.S. should also cut military spending and use the money to increase foreign aid to poor nations.

Wow - that's a long reply to a short comment!

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