In a world of people bending over backwards to not offend each other, Sha’an Mouliert is a different breed. When an interviewer says to her, “You must make a lot of people angry in your work,” her response is quick and firm: “Thank you.”
In a former life, she worked at Sports Illustrated for a woman who produced the annual swimsuit edition. “She was talking with the marketing director about hemlines, as if one would talk about social justice,” Mouliert said. “And I was thinking, I’d rather be home defrosting my refrigerator.”
When she heard that the mortality rate for African American teens was 25 percent, she and her young family left the city. She wasn’t willing to take that gamble with her son.
They landed in the Northeast Kingdom, where racial tensions took on a different tone. “I saw around me the treatment my son was receiving – or not receiving – in school,” she remembered. “As a black boy with special needs and learning disabilities, he was not succeeding.”
Mouliert kept her focus on her son throughout his school years, then faced another decision point when he was no longer at home. “I was faced with the choice of the personal and the political,” she said. “I’ve taken the political.”
She has become a well-known racial justice activist in Vermont, having co-founded the African American Alliance of the Northeast Kingdom. In 2015, Lyndon State College honored Mouliert with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work as a community organizer, educator and artist.
But it’s not just racial issues that pique her interest. In a wide-ranging conversation last week, she demonstrated passion for issues including LGBT rights, addiction issues, justice for women, affordable housing, literacy, and much more.
And being a force for change in those areas can anger people. After her quick “Thank you,” Mouliert added, “I’ve paid the price.”
“I experience micro-aggressions on a daily basis from the most well-intentioned people,” she said. “I was leading an exercise group in Island Pond and I wore a white scarf that day on my head. And a woman said, Oh you look like you’re going to pick cotton!”
One problem is that Vermont appears to be a place that would welcome racial diversity. People from outside the state see Bernie Sanders signs and “Black Lives Matter” signs and assume it is a progressive, safe place to be. They, Mouliert said, start experiencing constant microagressions, racial slurs, and more.
“They’re sharing this on social media. They feel betrayed. They feel that Vermont doesn’t know what ‘Black Lives Matter’ means.”
She is doing her part to raise people’s awareness.
She recounts a story of being in the car with her then-teenage son being pulled over “for no reason” by three cop cars.
“I’m digging my nails into his arm,” she said. “In order for safety, I’m hurting my son so that he doesn’t go off the bend! … I had to decide, what was the lesser of two evils?”
“It’s the controversy between spanking your kids and not spanking your kids,” she said. “As a black parent you say, I’m going to spank him to teach him – because I don’t want him to do wrong and get killed.”
Her son is currently incarcerated and still has special needs. “My son is in jail. When he gets out of jail, he’s not going to be able to do anything but go back to jail,” she said. “I’m involved with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, looking at the disproportionate numbers of people of color incarcerated. A study had come out of the disproportionate number of color and people with disabilities in school discipline and the pipeline to prisons.”
Mouliert has had trouble making ends meet because her masters in education prices her out of the type of non-profit jobs she is qualified for. For several years she was an AmeriCorps volunteer. She has been homeless twice during her adult years. Now, in addition to her various volunteer and activist commitments, she teaches exercise classes to bring in some extra money.
But despite the hardships, she remains passionate about her life choices. Why? “Integrity,” she said. “In the win/lose dichotomy of our social construct, I feel that I was the victor.”
“Some people know me as a racial justice activist organizer. Some people know me as a dancer. Some people know me as a exercise class leader. Some people know me as a librarian, others know me as a teacher and professor.”
Fellow social justice activist Elisa Lucozzi knows Mouliert as someone who brings a needed perspective to the Northeast Kingdom.
“I think of her as a local expert because racism in the NEK looks so different than it does anywhere else, because there are so few people of color here. I appreciate that she sees the need to keep the issue in the forefront, even though we don’t have that many people of color. … All those things we tell ourselves to take ourselves off the hook for racism,” Lucozzi said. “I think she’s a tireless advocate for trying to make Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom the place that we like to pretend that we are.”
Mouliert likes to think of herself as a role model. “I’m a role model of ‘I don’t fit the mold’.”
Making A Difference is a series profiling local citizens who are playing a positive role in their local communities, in large and small ways. Is there someone you’d like to nominate? Do you have a story of someone who has had a significant impact on your life? Send an email with the subject line “Making A Difference” to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information, the nominee’s name and contact information, and some information about how they’re Making A Difference.