Last year, Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation that created a litany of new efforts to combat racism in Vermont. That law also created a cabinet-level post in the executive branch to address the issue of racism in state government. Now, Xusana Davis is Vermont's first-ever director of racial equity.
Davis comes to Vermont by way of New York, where she worked as the director of health and housing initiatives for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Davis said she had been planning to move to Vermont and that this newly created position in state government was well-aligned with her previous work experience.
The job description for the state's director of racial equity is a daunting one: conduct a comprehensive review to find out where systemic racism exists in the three branches of government, and then develop a plan to eliminate it.
"I'm really fortunate that, even though the description of the job is intended for me, it's not something that I'm going to be doing alone," Davis told Vermont Edition. "I've got a really, really supportive team and a lot of people across the state seem to be really enthused about this work and really proud that their state government is looking forward and ... facing this head on."
A number of racial justice advocates in Vermont have expressed wariness when it comes to state government's ability to police and address systemic racism within itself. Davis said that, generally speaking, those feelings are valid; she acknowledged there are various examples where the government has given people a reason to not trust them.
"I think that those concerns are certainly not out of place," Davis said. "However, I think that the fact that the state of Vermont has demonstrated its willingness and its desire to right certain systemic wrongs and historic wrongs, I think is first of all incredible, right? That we're not in denial over who we were as a nation and as a state, and who we want to be as a state.
"And second, I think that when you do something wrong or when you're part of a system that fosters inequity, it's appropriate that you be part of the solution to correct it. And the team we have in state government and the tools that we have really equip us to do some good work here."
Assessing quantitative data will be key in these efforts, Davis said, as well as working with government and community partners "to help us identify what are the pressure points that we haven't been looking at as a state that we need to address."
"I'm really going to be leaning on the folks here on the ground and people from all around the state to help me, and ultimately to help the administration, really understand what are the critical needs related to racial equity and inclusivity that the government should be targeting," Davis said.
Existing data shows that people of color are leaving state government jobs at a higher rate than their white counterparts; Davis said there could be a number of factors responsible for that disparity, and that such trends among any protected classes require scrutiny.
"I don't know yet what it is here in Vermont that's causing those trends, but that's one of the things that we're going to be looking at very closely because we do want to hire a diverse workforce," Davis said. "We want to attract talent no matter who it is or what it looks like, and I think that this is going to be a critical point for the state when we talk about revitalizing its economy and bringing it to the forefront of a lot of social issues."
More from VPR — Complaints Across State Agencies Spotlight Racial Divide In Vermont Government Workplace [February 2018]
One part of the racial equity director's job is enticing diverse populations to come live in Vermont. Davis said the state needs to continue to show prospective Vermonters the options that exist in the state — from jobs to hobbies — that appeal to their personal needs and interests.
She also said Vermont needs to be cognizant of climate change migration patterns and have a plan so the state is ready to welcome people that may make their way here.
"I do think that if we want to grow an economy, if we want to have a strong and robust workforce, and we want to have a strong and robust Vermont, then we've really got to think differently than we've been thinking," Davis said, "and put ourselves into the shoes of those whom we want to attract to figure out what are the needs that perhaps we could meet better."
While U.S. Census data shows that Vermont's Asian population, its black or African American population, and its Hispanic or Latino population have all been growing in recent years, the state is still one of the whitest in the country. Davis said that she's seen instances where people support equity efforts, but hesitate to get involved out of fear in doing so in a "wrong" way.
"Truth be told, I think that it's important that everybody be a participant in this," Davis said. "We're talking about one society, one group of people, one state identity comprised of 600,000 to 700,000 people each with unique abilities and talents. And I think that despite the homogeneity ... in the state, it's critically important for everybody to be active and be vocal."