Group seeks local presence of NAACP in Windsor County

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-15-2023 12:14 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A group of Windsor County residents is working to establish a local branch of the NAACP.

As of Friday, the group was 70% of the way to the 100 members required to establish a new branch, said Pat Autilio, an organizer from Quechee.

There are currently just two branches of the civil rights organization in Vermont, one in Windham County and the other in Rutland County.

The fact that there are just two branches in the state “was kind of sad to me,” Miriam Wood, another organizer of the effort, said in a recent Zoom call.

Nationally, there are 2,200 units that, at least in part, aim to continue Martin Luther King Jr.’s work “on behalf of Black Americans and (strive) to keep his dream alive for future generations.”

Steffen Gillom, a 33-year-old Brattleboro, Vt., resident who is president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP, said in the roughly six years of the branch’s existence and his leadership of it, the chapter has tackled a wide range of issues, sometimes working with individuals to navigate specific hardships and sometimes advocating for policy change locally or statewide. The list of policy issues the group has pursued includes land access and rights; policing reform; education equity; health equity; and the recent constitutional amendment that explicitly bans slavery in Vermont.

“We have really been able to be quite a presence in the state,” he said.

The organizers’ vision for the Windsor County group is that it will serve as a resource to residents experiencing racial discrimination. Though members don’t need to live in the county, the group’s leaders will, and their work will be focused there.

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Both Wood and Autilio are members of the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, but their work to form an NAACP group is separate from their work with the town. The NAACP branch will have a broader reach and also won’t be affiliated with a government entity, Autilio said.

“Ultimately, the goal would be for, if they did have a problem, they would have someone to talk to about it,” Wood said. It can be “hard to go to the school administration or the town. Hopefully people will feel comfortable talking to us.”

Wood, who is Black, moved to the Upper Valley with her family when she was 5. She’s now 39. As a child, Wood said she was the only Black person in her class. While the Upper Valley has become more diverse since then, there still aren’t enough groups that bring people together to discuss racial issues.

“People are craving some type of committees,” she said.

Still, the “goal would be that we’re not overly busy,” Wood said, noting that she hopes there are “not too many issues that would need NAACP” support.

There isn’t a particular issue “necessarily that’s hit the papers in the Upper Valley” that’s motivating the group’s formation, Wood said. Instead, she said it’s “little issues.”

“There needs to be some type of change,” she said. But there “isn’t a George Floyd-type of story,” she said, simply “some dissatisfaction.”

Autilio, 64, is white and moved to the Upper Valley in 2017 from New Jersey to be close to his daughter, who works at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. He pointed to some recent events in the Upper Valley as evidence of racism, including a 2020 incident when Columbia University professor Chris Brown and his son, New York residents who were living at their Quechee home during the pandemic, were stopped by two white men at an intersection in Quechee. One of the men said, “We don’t want your drugs and your crime and your COVID,” Brown recounted, according to a Valley News story from May 2020.

“That was kind of shocking,” Autilio said of the incident.

He also noted that Confederate and Nazi flags, symbols of hate, have been spotted flying from Hartford dwellings.

“We don’t necessarily have a window into everything that happens,” Autilio said, but he hopes the local NAACP branch “will provide some support for people who are experiencing things,” such as students in schools or individuals in the community.

The group aims to “pull out the welcome mat,” he said.

Once the group reaches the 100-member mark, it will seek approval from the regional branch and national organization. Wood said she expects that process to take a few months.

Membership forms are available online at https://autilio.net/naacp/NAACPWCVTMembershipLiveForm.pdf. More information is available by contacting Wood at Miriamcwood@gmail.com or Autilio at pifzid@gmail.com.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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