Hartford Racial Inequality Committee Meeting Ends in Resignations

  • During a meeting for Hartford's Committee on Racial Inequality, Ashley Andreas, of Wilder, Vt., left, Joe Burke, of South Royalton, Vt., and Lannie Collins of Hartford, Vt., speak about what was happening in the meeting in Hartford on Nov. 14, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Chairwoman Olivia LaPierre listens during a Committee on Racial Inequality meeting in Harford, Vt., on Nov. 14, 2017. Committee members Rebecca White, and John Hall listen as well. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • At a meeting of Hartford's Committee on Racial Inequality Dan Hillard shakes the hand of committee member Nancy Russell. Hillard resigned as a member of the committee. On the left is Michelle Boleski also on the committee. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Wayne Miller resigned from Hartford's Committee on Racial Inequality on Nov. 14, 2017 in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2017 12:59:15 AM
Modified: 11/16/2017 11:05:46 AM

White River Junction — Three members of the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality resigned Tuesday night. The resignations included Chairwoman Olivia LaPierre, whose recent statement about white people had drawn a passionate response from both supporters and detractors.

“I don’t owe white people my time, my patience, my kindness,” LaPierre said at the end of a two-hour meeting in the Town Hall. “I refuse to continue to do emotional and physical labor when my safety is compromised daily.”

LaPierre told the crowd of about 40 that she planned to continue organizing, and hopes others will take her place on the committee. She said the town and school officials who formed the committee in April were, by questioning her leadership, obstructing her from carrying out the committee’s work.

“I refuse to chair a committee in which a Selectboard and School Board restrict my ability to hold my leadership position and follow through on planning and missions and objectives and goals that I have for this committee,” she said. “If they cannot respect my experience and my expertise and how I want to utilize this committee to support the black and indigenous people of color who live in this community, then I am done.”

LaPierre, 22, has been an active racial justice activist in the community since her recent graduation from Lyndon State College. She came under fire after an Oct. 17 meeting between the committee and Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten. During that meeting, LaPierre said that “white people are socialized to be racist,” which offended some members of the School Board and Selectboard even as others spoke in her defense.

Committee member John Hall read from a lengthy pre-written statement in which he said those who were offended “demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of what implicit biases are and how they manifest in the course of governing the town of Hartford.”

Hall, who is black, said that he himself had recently taken an internet-based bias test that demonstrated that he had a slight preference for whites over blacks.

“It’s a little bit scary,” he said. “The results didn’t surprise me. But I felt a little sad when I read them.”

Hall cited research and literature showing that social conditioning creates race-based preferences from a very young age.

Unlike more overt forms of racism, implicit bias, by definition, happens without conscious knowledge.

Several of LaPierre’s supporters said her comment was intended to educate Kasten on that fact.

LaPierre herself declined to explain her comment, even when pressed by Lannie Collins, a Hartford resident who described himself as hurt.

“You do not wish to address them in an open forum at this point in time?” he asked.

“Correct,” LaPierre said without further explanation.

The other committee members who resigned were Dan Hillard and Wayne Miller.

Hillard, who is white, challenged LaPierre’s comment during the Oct. 17 meeting, and said at the time that he took it to mean that “all white people are racist.”

On Tuesday, Hillard read from a prepared resignation letter that listed many of the positive aspects of life in Hartford, such as the sports leagues, proximity to the White River Junction VA Medical Center, and the access to clean air and water.

“You folks have taught me a great deal about the history of racial justice in this community,” he said. “The entire Upper Valley is paying attention. ... We are better than those images, and we owe the citizens of our community a better result.”

Miller said that, as he grew up, he gained insight into racism through seeing the difference in the way Vermonters treated his white mother and his black father.

“I did not expect the community to respond well to what we’re trying to do,” he said. “I really wanted to do an easier, softer way but that doesn’t work either. ... People don’t want to learn.”

Miller also tied his resignation to the Selectboard, and accused them of not wanting the committee to have been formed in the first place.

“Right from the very beginning, we had targets on our backs. And we already had targets on our backs because we’re people of color,” he said. “I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m burned out. ... We’re not getting anything done.”

Before LaPierre announced her resignation, town and school officials offered continued criticism of her divisive October comment.

Hartford Selectboard member Dennis Brown reiterated his previously stated objection.

“I looked very deep into my upbringing,” he said. “I just don’t think I was brought up to be racist.”

And Hartford School Board member Lori Dickerson said the community would be better served by focusing on commonalities, rather than differences.

“I don’t know how you can continue to be chair of this committee,” she said.

Other officials, including Selectboard member Rebecca White, spoke in defense of LaPierre. White said she was disappointed with her fellow Selectboard members who, she said, have “continued to collectively degrade the opportunity” to benefit from the committee’s work.

She urged those in the room to vote in accordance with their principles during Town Meeting in March.

Of the roughly 20 people who took the podium, nearly all spoke in favor of LaPierre.

Hartford resident Ashley Andreas said that LaPierre’s critics were “demonizing her,” and ignoring the real problems being faced by people of color in the community.

She cited a recent study that showed black people were pulled over by Hartford police officers at disproportionately high rates.

“Our police were among the worst in the state, and our state is among the worse in the country,” she said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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