Talking tolerance: Taking the race conversation beyond CVU

Staff Reporter

Race and privilege have been at the forefront of Champlain Valley School District’s thoughts. This year, students created the Racial Alliance Committee, which meets in the library on Wednesday mornings. At the past few school board meetings, students from the committee have asked the board to allow the group to fly the Black Lives Matter flag at school.

The student-led committee was created this year by four seniors – Prince Yodishembo, Paige Thibault, Akuch Dau and Katelyn Wong –  because they wanted to have more dialogue about race at the school.

A conversation has blossomed from the group’s proposal. Some students said the flag shouldn’t be flown on the flag staff. They offered the alternative of hanging the flag in the cafeteria, which is currently adorned with many flags of different nationalities and causes. The students in the group think flying the flag would encourage more discussion.

Currently, the American flag flies on one pole, the Vermont flag flies on the other, and an alternating red or white flag flies under the state flag to signify what schedule day it is for students.

At the recent school board meetings, students from the Racial Alliance Committee invited students who shared opposing opinions to come to their weekly meetings. When school board members asked what they could do to educate themselves, the students replied that had a wealth of information pertaining to the flag.

The students acknowledged that these conversations often mean pushing the limits of their comfort zone.

“Educate yourselves,” student Paige Thibault recommended. “It’s not some colossal strange problem we can’t touch. It’s talking to someone you know, reach out to your peers.”

Thibault told Shelburne News in a recent interview that, as a white person, she realizes that she has not always been aware of the issues race plays in others’ lives. When asked about her proactive stance, and her ability to admit that she has “privilege”, Thibault said her approach is being open to learning about the issues.

“It’s sort of how you go about life,” she said. “We all learn something new every day, and self- reflection and awareness about racial issues are no different. Adults and politicians largely feel they have to put on this all knowing act. We need our leaders of tomorrow to share their vulnerabilities and say ‘Hey, we are humans that mess up.’”

‘Not knowing how to be an ally’

These conversations aren’t only happening in district schools. The Shelburne Social Services Committee, which is charged with helping to address the needs of Shelburne residents, has put on a two-part series to talk about race.

The committee first showed the PBS documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion” this fall. Then the committee hosted a book club event earlier this winter featuring “Waking Up White” by Debbie Irving.

Member Patricia Fontaine was a facilitator for those groups. She has been a facilitator for years, and has attended racial justice workshops at the Peace & Justice Center, and is a member of the group Showing Up for Racial Justice Vermont. She is also a member of the White Caucus of Black Lives Matter of greater Burlington.

She talked with Shelburne News about realizing her own privilege, which lead her to participate in these groups.

“As I am about to turn 65, I am astonished at what I didn’t know I didn’t know,” she said. “I assumed that everyone was on a level playing field, but as I have read, and talked to people of color about their lived experience, I am learning that the playing field is not level, and that, just because I am white, my perspective is taken as the normal one.”

She continued.

“I can get a bank loan much easier than my black friend,” Fontaine said. “I am not followed around in a store, or do not have to worry about racial profiling that can lead to deadly consequences if I am stopped by the police in my car. I do not have to fear being run off the road on my bike, as another black friend of mine recently was. If I am silent about these things, if I turn away – which I can do easily, and have done, due to my extensive white privilege – then I believe I am being passive and complicit about it.”

Sue Furry-Irish is also a member of the Shelburne Social Services Committee and participated in the series.

“I think the most difficult thing for most of us is not knowing how to be an ally,” she said. When asked about what she found she could do to be a better ally, she said she is still learning.

“It’s not that there’s a formula that we can use to assist in bringing equality, a big part of it is gathering the courage to discuss it and keep an open mind,” Furry-Irish said, adding that reading the Debbie Irving book has helped her contemplate how she could be a better ally. To her, that meant seeking out more resources and learning about racial injustice.

“There are an amazing amount of resources –  Showing Up for Racial Justice Vermont, and the book group … so there are more and more opportunities,” she said. “Hopefully awareness is increasing everywhere.”

Shelburne’s Social Services Committee is working to provide more opportunities to discuss racial justice. Hinesburg’s Carpenter-Carse Library is working to host events about racial justice. The Peace & Justice Center in Burlington also hosts multiple events weekly about discussing racial justice.

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