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How Do We Build A Welcoming Vermont?

A sign on a summer day that says Welcome To Vermont The Green Mountain State with greenery in the background.
Meg Malone
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VPR File
Can Vermont be welcoming to all?

Our nation is struggling with questions of race, political ideology, social class and identity. This hour, we pose the question: Can Vermont be welcoming to all? We talk about how Vermont has or hasn't been welcoming for those coming from far places and those who were born and raised right here in the Green Mountain State. 

Our guests are:

Broadcast live on Thursday, June 4, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and paraphrased for brevity and clarity.

Let’s talk about this idea of inclusivity and being welcoming. How do you conceive of this question of inclusivity, value and diversity?

Dr. Cheryl Morse: The way I consider it, there’s no single Vermont, there’s no single Vermont culture. We don’t have rigid borders that define inside and outside. Sometimes those of us who grew up here feel excluded from conversations or from movements or from certain planning efforts, and sometimes it’s those who have just recently arrived who feel that exclusionary process. So I think we need to open up our thinking or our imagination about what we mean when we say "Vermont" and "Vermont culture," and that’s a nice starting point to then understand how at different moments people feel differently. 

This insider-outsider status happens everywhere, but I think there are places that feel less insular, that don’t have quite the same pull to nativism and roots that Vermont can have. Would you agree? 

Dr. Cheryl Morse: I would say it’s actually a rural dynamic that I have found in other rural places. Speaking from my own personal experience as someone who grew up in a rural part of the state, I greatly adhere to my rural identity. I see that sometimes my defensiveness around hearing somebody else’s critique of Vermont, I can quickly revert to my "well my family has lived in Vermont for so many generations I can’t count" identity. And I see that as a way to say "I don’t have a whole bunch to hold on to here so I’m going to hold on to heritage."

Heritage is important and knowing the land and feeling rooted in a place is just an immense privilege. It can be an extremely rich and meaningful part of a person’s identity, but sometimes we use it as a way to keep others out and keep other ideas out, and it's often seen in rural places where economically, educationally, people haven’t had the same opportunities as the urban and suburban folks they’re encountering as visitors or newcomers. 

"Those who have been here for generations needs to step back and really hear what people are saying. It's that ability to suspend one's knee jerk reaction to say, 'You're wrong,' or 'You've got us wrong.'" - Curtiss Reed, Jr., Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity

So, Curtiss, you have a vision for Vermont, how do you think about building this community that we’re talking about?

Curtiss Reed, Jr.: Our vision is that Vermont is recognized as an inclusive and equitable destination. So how do you make Vermont the most desirable destination for people of color? Our population is decreasing, we have the lowest birth rate in the nation. We're the second-oldest state in the nation. We need 11,000 workers a year just to maintain where we are economically, and we are looking beyond our borders into a population of black and brown people to try and attract them here. 

It’s really important to have conversations with other members of your community and let them know they’ve been heard. That’s a critically important part of feeling welcome - that your voice is in fact heard in this space.

More from VPR: Racism — and Antiracism — in Vermont

The Castleton polling institute asked Vermonters in 2019 if they consider their community to be a place that is welcoming to racial and ethnic diversity. Dr. Rich Clark, a political science professor at Castleton University, found those who have lived most of their lives in Vermont were much more likely to say that the state welcomes diversity, than those that have lived parts of their lives elsewhere. 

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Credit Rich Clark, Courtesy
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Rich Clark, Courtesy

That suggests that while people who have lived in one place for much or most of their lives think it is welcoming, they’ve never come into their space or into their community from outside, so their view may not resonate with those that are actually coming in. How do we bridge that gap?

Dr. Cheryl Morse: I think it’s important to think about the physical spaces where we connect in rural places: town meetings, public school, the general store, the recycling drop off spot. Those are the places where we actually encounter people with different backgrounds from us. If we focus on the physical places  and start by having small conversations and opening up discussion with people who maybe we’ve never met before that are new to the community, that’s the place to start this kind of work, in addition to working with policy and protest channels and other things like that. 

Curtiss Reed, Jr. : What I believe to be one of the core values of this state, is the ability to talk to each other and listen to each other. And those who have been here for generations need to step back and really hear what people are saying. It’s that ability to suspend one’s knee jerk reaction to say, ‘You’re wrong,’ or ‘You’ve got us wrong.’

How do you think about this conversation about who calls Vermont home and how we welcome different perspectives?

Melita Sedic-Lawton: Well I came here as a refugee in 1994, and I was among one of the first families from Bosnia to arrive in Middlebury. And my own experience is that the community in Middlebury was so giving. I feel I was able to make my journey successful. But I’m aware of my own white European privilege. I was able to easily integrate into this community and not feel isolated, and I think Vermont can do a better job of offering the same opportunities and resources to people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds as well. 

"I was able to easily integrate into this community and not feel isolated, and I think Vermont can do a better job offering the same opportunities and resources to people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds as well." - Melita Sedic-Lawton, educator and artist based in Williston

Cai Xi: When I first moved here in 2001, I immediately fell in love. Vermont is a very non-diverse state and it’s really important to have conversations with other members of your community, to give them voice and let them know that they’ve been heard. That’s a critically important part of feeling welcome, is that your voice is in fact heard in this space. 

I think with white privilege, some people can say they are open to different cultures, that they love Asian cultures or African cultures, but that’s not enough. It’s not enough to just say, ‘I love your culture,’ and to paint yourself as a nice person; it’s about acceptance. 

How can Vermont do a better job? What would you like to see Vermont and Vermonters do?

Melita Sedic-Lawton: Well, as other people mentioned, I would like to see more inclusive and welcoming communities across the state, by providing more transportation for people who don’t have access to it and more affordable houses. Inviting them, empowering them, giving them access to resources. There were people in Middlebury who were open to offering me resources to tell me about community college, because at that time I didn’t even know how to access college or education in Vermont. I’d like to see other people with different racial backgrounds and cultural backgrounds and language backgrounds get to experience the same welcoming I did.

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"So transportation, child care, housing, being able to get rural people in and out of their communities to more urban centers more easily, all those things will help all the boats rise up, and thinking in that way that improvements to our general society are improvements for all of us." - Cheryl Morse, professor of geography at the University of Vermont

Dr. Cheryl Morse: Recently, some research came out called, “The employer tool kit: working with New Americans in Vermont,” by Dr. Pablo Bose. When I read through the recommendations for how employers can make their workplaces more welcoming for New American workers, I was struck that the list of recommendations matches exactly with the list of recommendations that would help any community with any kind of problems. So transportation, child care, housing, being able to get rural people in and out of their communities to more urban centers more easily - all those things will help all the boats rise up, and improvements to our general society are improvements for all of us. 

More from VPR: Is Vermont Really 'So Expensive'?

Cheryl Morse is an assistant professor of Geography at the University of Vermont. She recently worked on the Roots Migration Project, which asked people who attended high school in Vermont about their choices to stay, go, or come back to Vermont as adults. Currently, Cheryl is working on a project that examines the differences between those in urban and rural areas. 

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