On Thursday morning, April 4, Champlain Valley Union High School became the eighth Vermont school to raise the Black Lives Matter flag.
The school held a ceremony to commemorate the event. Six members of the school’s Racial Alliance Committee and principal Adam Bunting spoke, the CVU Women’s Chorus sang and a large crowd of students, teachers and members of the community braved the unseasonably cold and windy weather.
Almost all of the students at CVU chose to attend the ceremony, but they had the option not to, Bunting said.
Akuch Dau, one of the co-leaders and founders of the Racial Alliance Committee, talked about the almost two-year process that had brought them to this point.
She said that there had been three school board meetings about the proposal to fly the flag and a school-wide assembly. The Racial Alliance Committee collected 550 signatures from students and faculty and, with community member signatures, brought the total to 800 signatures on the petition to have the Black Lives Matter flag raised.
One of the co-leaders of the Racial Alliance Committee, Katelyn Wong, thanked members of the faculty and the community who helped the effort to raise the flag. She also thanked the student leaders of South Burlington, Montpelier, Essex and Burlington High School “who paved the way.”
“Flying the Black Lives Matter flag is a catalyst for a desperately needed dialogue, and not just around race,” said Paige Thibault, a co-leader of the Racial Alliance Committee. “This is a conversation about our unity as a community and the obstacles we face as a place of inclusion. We mustn’t stay silent any longer. We mustn’t be afraid of the discomfort substantive change can bring. As student leaders, we declare that it is no longer acceptable to ignore and run away from tension. Now more than ever, we must make a conscious collective choice to walk boldly toward our insecurities and fears for the betterment of our entire school community.”
Encouraging difficult conversations
One of the members of the Racial Alliance Committee, Bene Yodishembo, spoke about how flying the flag showed her that she is cared for and valued.
In a conversation after the ceremony, Yodishembo said that there have been times when she has felt uncomfortable at school. When she was in middle school in Williston, one of her friends was asked, “Why are you sitting with that (n-word)?”
The incidents early this school year when swasitkas and the n-word were found painted on a wall and on desks at CVU had been an uncomfortable time. Yodishembo said the raising of the flag makes her feel “seen and heard.”
In her prepared remarks during the ceremony, Yodishembo said, “Talking about race and things that make us uncomfortable are never ever easy.” She said that raising the flag is only the beginning and encouraged her fellow students “to have difficult conversations.”
Christel Tonoki told the crowd that she was “overwhelmed by how similar our differences make us.”
“The world still to this day will look at you and determine your worth based on your appearance. RAC aims to abolish all heinous standards and stereotypes,” she said.
Tonoki thanked the school board, principal Bunting, and “most importantly Christina Deeley for being the first adult in the school to let me know that I am free to be who I am, unapologetically.”
That sentiment brought a cheer from the crowd.
Deeley, who is a librarian at CVU, said after the ceremony, “It makes it worth it being a teacher. That I got to hear that makes me so glad. It makes me proud. Fifteen years of teaching paid off.”
The flag goes up
As the CVU Women’s Chorus sang “Hate Kills,” the flag was raised, billowing and snapping in a bitter wind.
Bunting and Racial Alliance Committee co-leader Prince Yodishembo gave the closing remarks.
Bunting told the crowd that the flag is a symbol, but it is an object. “The flag’s meaning,” he said, “is the life we breath into it.”
He said that in his role as principal he is usually speaking for the school, but that in this situation he felt it was more appropriate to speak for himself. “For me, this flag and this ceremony are statements of intention to honor the voices of those who’ve been marginalized, a promise to deepen my understanding of my own bias and perspective so I might more ably do my part to create a community that is healthy to all.”
Bunting said, “Before I give this mic to Prince, I invite you to consider your own journey. Take a second to consider: What does this flag, this ceremony mean to you? What promise do you make to yourself and your community?”
In the penultimate closing remarks, Prince Yodishembo quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The absolute closing remarks came from Principal Bunting.
“Now, go get warm.”