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'Racism Is A Chameleon In Vermont': Courtney Casper Creates Affinity Spaces For BIPOC Vermonters

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Courtney Casper, Courtesy
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Courtney "Coco" Casper is the founder of Bad Indian Wife, where they create therapeutic support spaces for people of the global majority in Vermont.

For the past year, Courtney "Coco" Casper has focused on creating therapeutic support spaces that are free to participants and are safer and easier to access for Black, Indigenous and other people of color in Vermont.

Casper's Winooski-based practice, Bad Indian Wife, aims to help Vermonters of color move away from unjust social conditioning and move towards becoming their best selves.

Casper: So I'm a queer, cisgender, first generation American daughter, sister, friend, partner, social worker, survivor, training psychotherapist, and, you know, a lifelong student.

And I love creating spaces for individuals and collectives to explore and address the ways that our conditioning can really hold us back from becoming the highest version of ourselves.

"I set out on this journey with Bad Indian Wife to help people of the global majority in Vermont heal through building community."
Courtney "Coco" Casper

Casper opened their practice Bad Indian Wife this past year. The mental health and wellness practice provides affinity spaces. Those are group settings, online for now, for underrepresented people in a community.

Affinity spaces are places to virtually come together to feel less isolated and more connected, so group participants can talk and share and focus on working towards a particular goal or mission.

Casper says one challenge they faced has been building these crowd-funded services from the ground up, in a health care system that isn't quite built for that.

More from VPR: (Un)fractured: Experiencing Intersectionality In Vermont

You're creating a completely alternative system of health care and wellness in the state of Vermont, founded on mutual aid principles. It's kind of like sailing unchartered waters. And there's no roadmap for this. So it's not necessarily a bad thing, either. But it's certainly a large challenge.

And I want to be upfront about that: about how convoluted and difficult that really is. I think some people think that, you know, I or other people make it look easy, especially community organizers. But we really suffer with burnout. And that's something that I really want to address in my own personal life, and then, moving forward, in my work.

Casper says their diligence in creating a community of BIPOC Vermonters and a place for them to heal is beginning to bear fruit.

I set out on this journey with Bad Indian Wife to help people of the global majority in Vermont heal through building community. And that's really happening.

Sometimes I'm sort of blown away that that's happening. People are meeting up in person, forming friend groups; there are all kinds of group chats going on.

People are helping each other with rides and feeling safe going to the grocery store. Those little acts of service, those little shows of loyalty and familial support -- that's what community-building really looks like.

More from VPR: 'Building The Plane While We Fly It': BIPOC Community Organizers Shrink The Gap On Vaccine Equity

And that's what facilitates a lot of healing and growth. You know, also this year I promised myself that I would no longer allow my intellectualism, my dreams, or my emotional well-being to belong to predominantly white institutions.

So in the last year, I left my jobs at NFI Vermont and UVM Counseling and Psychiatry Services, and I have never been happier or prouder of myself or more terrified. But I'm finally doing the quality work that I was constantly pleading with those organizations to do.

And I've learned how to make mistakes gracefully, you know? I've leaned into a deeper practice of accountability and transparency, which has definitely impacted my work with clients in a transformative way. So, you know, I show up whole, and so do they.

And the practice's name, Bad Indian Wife, Casper says is meant to be playful, but carries with it deeply entrenched cultural expectations.

It's a playful pseudonym. And it's a statement of queer multicultural existence. You know, growing up, when I was young, I was indoctrinated from a very young age -- I'm talking, like, 4- or 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-years-old, constantly being told, “Well, if you do X, Y, and Z, you're going to be a good wife. And if you do X, Y, and Z, you'll be a bad wife.”

And the older I got, the more people said to me, “You are not going to be a good wife; you're going to be a bad wife.”

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And you know, ‘bad Indian wife’ is a term that if you're a part of the South Asian diaspora, you know, specifically the Indian diaspora, you've probably heard that before.

So for me, you know, what I recognized is: if this is what makes me a bad Indian wife, for being outspoken, if being passionate, if being divested from the systems that are in place that are designed to keep me subservient, like if that's what makes me a bad Indian wife, then I'm happy to be one.

And the need for services facilitated through the practice are relevant and necessary in a state like Vermont, where Casper says racism can be kind of, as they call it, "a chameleon."

I think it's really coded, right? ... When people talk about other parts of the United States, there's a lot of overt racism, and people can just call it and people aren't afraid to say it too. But in Vermont, I think racism looks like, you know, like, "We need to gather more data."

When people are saying, you know, "This is an initiative," or "This is something that needs to happen," and folks are saying, "Well, we need to gather more data," that's what racism looks like. It looks like white bodied family and loved ones welcoming our gifts but dismissing our pain and our complexity.

It looks like huge pools of grant money being gate capped and available only to registered businesses and collectives with nonprofit status. It looks like putting off action and deeply believing in the excuses as to why. And it also looks like passing the buck, right?

You know, saying things like, "Well, I support what you're saying here, but it's my supervisor who doesn't or some other person higher than me, and so my hands are tied."

"... in Vermont, there's this deep belief that we are in a liberal bubble. And I think we're just in a very well-spoken bubble."
Courtney "Coco" Casper

Racism is just ... it is a chameleon, in Vermont. It is ever-shifting, ever-changing. It knows what it needs to say in order to go unnoticed. And so that's what we're dealing with up here.

It's hard. You can have a Black Lives Matter sign on the front of your house, and I don't trust a word you say yet. It's really about people's actions. And in Vermont, there's this deep belief that we are in a liberal bubble. And I think we're just in a very well-spoken bubble.

More from VPR: Asian Americans: The Vermont Experience

They are seeing more and more people of color visible in innovating and creating change in Vermont.

Because not only are we saying, "We're here and we have ideas, and we have ways that we can help our whole community."

But we're also saying: "We don't want to do it the way that it's been done. And we're actually not going to [do it that way], and we're going to make it happen. And we're going to find our own resources.We're going to pave our own way. We don't need your road." Right?

We're building another one for our community. That's everything. That's visibility. That's something to celebrate.

And we've been doing that forever. We've been surviving, thriving, finding ways to not only exist but dig in and build and root for millennia. So we're gonna keep doing that.

Listen to Homegoings: A Brave Little State Special Series With Musicians Of Color

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