Hartford Confronts Racism, Misogyny & Classism After Select Board Member Resigns Over Harassment
Editor's note: This story contains racist language.
The town of Hartford has been trying to address systemic racism in town, and it hasn't been easy.
A Black select board member resigned recently after she was harassed, and as Town Meeting Day elections approach, a rift is opening up between candidates who want to slow down the change, and those who want to continue pushing for racial equality.Alicia Barrow has been living in the Upper Valley for about 15 years, and she never really thought of running for her local select board. But then last year, some people in town said that as a single mom, struggling to make ends meet, she had an important perspective to share.
“It wasn’t just to represent my culture,” Barrow said. “It was to represent the larger community of poor and disenfranchised and marginalized folks who live in Hartford. Because there’s a lot of us. And there’s none of us sitting on the board.”
Barrow, who is Black, beat out a long-serving incumbent in a tight race last year, and she got on the board just as the pandemic hit.
Within a few months, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, and the town, and country, struggled to reckon with 400 years of systemic racism. As the Black Lives Matter movement grew, Barrow found herself in the middle of a sometimes contentious debate concerning the Pledge of Allegiance.
Barrow took a knee at the select board meetings when the rest of the board recited the Pledge. The criticism on social media, and in the street, according to Barrow, was swift and ugly.
“I was called a n----- with a hard 'r',” Barrow said. “So I’m not a stranger to racism, but in my 37 years of life, I have never been told to go back to Africa until I joined the select board.”
"So I'm not a stranger to racism, but in my 37 years of life, I have never been told to go back to Africa until I joined the select board." — Alicia Barrow, former Hartford Select Board member
In the fall, the presidential race added even more gas to an already explosive situation. Barrow says as an outspoken woman of color who wanted to help push for real change Hartford, she became a lightning rod for all of what America was going through this summer.
“I ticked a lot of hot boxes for people,” she said. “And over the past few years, we’ve been seeing women of color, men of color, taking a position of power. And when you’re seeing that all over the country, and then you see it in your own backyard, then, yeah, maybe it is a threat.”
It was all just too much, and last month she resigned from her three-year seat on the board.
Barrow's decision to resign follows similar reports from fellow Hartford select board member Rachel Edens, a Black woman, who was also harassed.
Vermont Executive Director of Racial Equity Xusana Davis says that's a problem.
“As much as people say Vermont doesn't have a problem with discrimination, it absolutely does,” Davis said. “And that's not to say that as a state we're bad, or irredeemable, or that we should be ashamed, or bury our heads about it. It just means that we've got to do something about it.”
Davis just issued a report that makes specific recommendations on what Vermont has to do to get more people of color to run and serve in local and state offices.
And she says it starts with making sure candidates and board members feel safe, and that law enforcement steps up to investigate harassment when it occurs.
“The responsibility is on all of us, especially those who have institutional power, to make sure that if those people are exposed to poor treatment, bias, discrimination, harrassment and threats, that we're doing more than just saying, 'Oh, that's such a shame. We hope it stops,’” said Davis.
And as Davis' report was released, a group of lawmakers this week also announced a new program that's meant to support and encourage BIPOC candidates to run for office.
Former Bennington Rep. Kiah Morris, who herself resigned after being harassed, said she hoped the new program would get more diverse candidates to run.
“We have to ask, like, how many BIPOC women watch what's happening across the state and come into this electoral cycle, come into thinking about a new future for our state, with a sense of hope, but also a very real hesitation, because of this climate that we're within?” Morris said.
"We have to ask, like, how many BIPOC women watch what's happening across the state and come into this electoral cycle, come into thinking about a new future for our state, with a sense of hope, but also a very real hesitation, because of this climate that we're within?" — Kiah Morris, former state representative
Barrow’s resignation from the Hartford Select Board means there's an extra seat up for grabs in the Town Meeting Day election in March.
And there's been some social media posts telling the town to vote “Hartford Strong,” and support a slate of candidates that “combined have over 200 years living in Hartford.” All of those candidates are white.
“There’s the old-school versus the new-school here,” said Joe Major, who also won his first election to the Hartford Select Board last year. “And the old-school doesn’t want Hartford to change. They want people who’ve lived here for 20-plus years to serve on the board, and to continue to serve on the board, and to have things like it used to be.”
Major is Black. He was a captain in the U.S. Army, and he stands, and puts his hand over his heart when he says the Pledge of Allegiance at select board meetings.
Major supports Barrow’s decision to resign, and doesn’t question her experiences confronting bigotry. But he says he’s never encountered extreme outright racism in the two years or so he’s been in Vermont.
He understands, however, why a single woman of color who challenges the status quo is being called out on social media.
“It’s so complex,” said Major. “And the one thing that it’s easy to do is to say, 'It’s racism.' No, it’s not just that. It is classism. It is misogyny. But is some of it racism? Yes. Of course.”
Hartford has taken some steps in recent years to address racism. The town adopted a Welcoming Hartford Ordinance to protect undocumented citizens: it prevents local police from coordinating with federal immigration officers.
And after a former select board member was caught emailing a racist cartoon of former President Barack Obama, the town formed a racial equity committee that’s been active around town.
"There's the old-school versus the new-school here. And the old-school doesn't want Hartford to change. They want people who've lived here for 20-plus years to serve on the board, and to continue to serve on the board, and to have things like it used to be." — Joe Major, Hartford Selectboard
Major says the town wants to appeal to diverse ethnic and racial groups, and make Hartford more hospitable to LGBTQ folks and New Americans.
And he knows, not everyone in town is ready for that.
“I think, particularly with this board, and things have happened fairly quickly, and a bit of a seismic shift in how the board looks, and even thinks,” Major said. “And I think that for some people, it has happened too fast. And maybe it has, I don’t know. I think that’s up to the people of Hartford to determine that.”
In the upcoming Town Meeting Day election, there are Black people and white people running. Old timers, and newcomers. Business people, veterans and teachers. And as always, it will be the voters who decide which direction Hartford should take moving into the future.
Peter Hirschfeld contributed reporting to this story.
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