ST. JOHNSBURY — A months-long racial literacy training led by facilitator, Sha’an Mouliert, concluded this week with participants from the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, St. Johnsbury Academy, Green Mountain United Way and the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce sharing their action plans and reflections after being steeped in what was taught as “a healing practice.”
The program was offered through the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce with a $3,000 grant funded by the Vermont Community Foundation’s Spark Connecting Community grant program with a grant of $900 from the Vermont Council on the Humanities for books for the course.
From working to include members of local Indigenous tribes to help with how exhibits are shared at the Fairbanks Museum, to outreach to a more diverse array of stakeholders and visitors in approaching its events and marketing at the Chamber of Commerce, local leaders vowed on the final night of their 8-month journey to embed the practice in their important work as community institutions.
During the final evening of the training program, held Wednesday evening both over Zoom due to the pandemic concerns and in-person at the St. Johnsbury Welcome Center, St. Johnsbury Chamber Executive Director Gillian Sewake was among those who shared the characteristic she and her group were assigned to discuss and propose antidotes for — as well as plans of action.
“Our professional white supremacy characteristic is the Right to Comfort. Our antidote is the recognition that discomfort is the route to growth and learning. To us, this discomfort sounds like the ‘clean pain’ mentioned in our readings,” shared Sewake.
She went on, “At the St. Johnsbury Chamber, Right to Comfort has historically prioritized the comfort and joy of white community members and visitors at the expense of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color) … At the Chamber, we see Right to Comfort showing up in maintaining the ‘status quo’ in our events, programming, and marketing messages.”
Resources the Chamber will need to address being more inclusive in its marketing, outreach to community members and visitors and events will include “Time to undertake the necessary training for the organizational board and staff, undertake programmatic assessments, and develop/deepen relationships with BIPOC businesses and organizations,” shared Sewake.
She proposed engaging a consultant to conduct an assessment and finding funding to do that work. “It’s worth noting that none of the above are significantly beyond what we would normally invest in programmatic assessment or professional development. These are all achievable without huge additional investments of time or money, but will require some intentional effort.”
Transformative Results The Goal
The training explored living in one of the whitest states, deconstructing whiteness, the dynamics of power, and developing sustainable strategies and practices, according to a press release, and was offered as “… an opportunity to explore some of the challenges facing people of color living in Vermont.”
Two books were used during the course as a framework: Howard Stevenson’s book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference, and Resmaa Menakem’s book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending.”
In the syllabus for the training, shared by Mouliert, it stated, “… How often have we heard, ‘I’m not racist’ or ‘I have Black and Brown friends’? Up until the last few years, you’d hear, ‘We have made so much progress; I don’t think racism is a problem anymore’. This training will offer an opportunity to explore some of the challenges facing people of color living in Vermont. Most people fail to act on racial microaggressions because the stress of negotiating such conflicts is extremely high due to fears of incompetence, public exposure and accusation.”
The monthly sessions integrated behavioral stress management strategies to problem solve racial stress, Mouliert noted in her syllabus for the course, and provided examples demonstrating workable solutions relevant within predominantly white communities, as well as measurable outcomes and strategies for developing racial literacy skills and leadership skills aimed at creating a more tolerant and supportive community for all.
The group was walked through developing an understanding of cultural humility and its application, and together examined white supremacy culture characteristics as they worked toward racial literacy skill-building.
Mouliert said on Friday, “The journey for me was a group of organizations coming together with the interest and commitment to change culture. It was an engaging experience as the participants began to build a foundational understanding of racial literacy and strategies and develop their skills using cultural humility and mindfulness practices while creating as support network.”
“I’m encouraged by the effort the St. J organization put in to the training and look forward to the outcome as they apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills,” she said.
Mouliert said, “White supremacy culture is based on values and the characteristics from ‘From Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups,’ by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, shows up in our personal lives, as well as, our organizations. These characteristics such as perfectionism, a sense of urgency or defensive produce and perpetuate microaggressions, as well as, maintain racial hierarchy. The antidotes provided allow the opportunity to practice different approaches. The participants moved from performance actions to transformative efforts.”
Reflections of Community Leaders
Representing the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, Collections Manager Beau Harris, Executive Director Adam Kane and Board Chair Paige Crosby shared how they will work to be inclusive and accountable.
Harris said the museum will reach out to the local Abenaki tribe members, for example, “To help determine what is important to talk about, what they feel could be better understood about their culture.” He said a shift “in how we display some of these things” will likely occur, adding, “We have to have discussions at the museum about that.”
“We just want to make sure this board represents the community that we serve and step away from the we’ve always done it this way attitude, and be much more inclusive,” said Crosby. “… to look at stepping away, for lack of a better phrase, the ‘old white boy’ world.”
St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead, who also serves on the Board of the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce, pointed to the former Victorian Christmas event in town, which was changed to Victorian Holiday to be less-Christmas focused, saying the event has typically portrayed “a sanitized version of our white industrial past,” and the Chamber is at work “building new traditions for everyone in our community to play a role in.”
He noted that it’s possible there may be “push back from community members that don’t want to mess with our traditions,” but said the Chamber must make intentional efforts, saying any “potential discomfort that is caused by these changes is a good sign that we are working to correct our right to comfort.”
Mouliert read from a poem by Sonia Sanchez, titled Progress Report, which appears at the end of The 1619 Project book.
The poem captures the final words spoken by George Floyd, a Black man whose murder at the hands — and knee — of a white Minneapolis, Minn. police officer sparked worldwide protests and brought the Black Lives Matter movement to a boiling point demanding change.
She then asked each member of the group to share just a word or two about where they were at eight months into the training, and she heard these words and more: flutter, tingly, moving on, hopeful, excitement, anticipation, penchant, collective, peaceful, inclusive, welcoming, electric and in Mouliert’s own addition, hallelujah!
Mouliert pressed those involved to share how they planned to address challenges, and how they would evaluate their progress in pushing for transformative change.
“Thank you all for this journey, it’s been incredible,” Mouliert concluded. “Give yourselves applause.”
Sha’an Mouliert, M.Ed., is a consultant, and artist, community organizer and educator who has facilitated conflict resolution, racial justice and community organizing workshops and trainings nationally and internationally. Lindsey Kerr served as Mouliert’s assistant in the training and was instrumental in the grant being awarded to make the course possible.