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Meet-and-greets encourage new Vermonters of color to stay

  • Curtiss Reed Jr. is the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. (VtDigger - Kevin O’Connor)

Published: 1/17/2022 8:42:37 PM
Modified: 1/17/2022 8:41:33 PM

Curtiss Reed Jr. has spent the past two decades working to expand the palette of the nation’s second whitest state, as executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, founder of the Vermont African American Heritage Trail and supporter of the welcoming website IAmAVermonter.org.

Attracting people of color to a place that’s 89.8% white is a challenge, Reed can attest.

Convincing people of color to stay is another.

“I’ve had conversations with recent arrivals who’ve had a difficult time connecting with members of the (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community,” he said recently. “Anecdotally, we know that if people don’t have a network to support them, they leave within 18 months.”

That’s why Reed is spearheading an easy yet empowering retention effort he hopes will act as a model for individuals and institutions statewide.

Vermont takes pride in its early efforts to abolish slavery and adopt same-sex unions. But as racial justice advocates observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they note the state’s population of color, at 10.2%, is barely larger than that in the nation’s whitest state of Maine.

Vermont has seen its total population of 643,077 grow only 2.8% in the past decade compared with a national average of 7.4%, the U.S. Census Bureau reports. Equity and economic leaders alike are working to draw more diversity. But Reed knows people who come can just as easily go, as seen by the fact the turnover rate for state government staffers of color is nearly double that for white workers.

And so when Gov. Phil Scott appointed Xusana Davis as the state’s first executive director of racial equity in 2019, Reed invited her to a meet-and-greet at his Brattleboro, Vt., home.

“It’s to say, ‘Welcome to Vermont,’ ” he recalls, “where there’s an eclectic group of Black and brown folks who know you’ll run into challenges you don’t have to suffer through alone.”

Reed, sending out 400 invitations, ultimately hosted 40 people from as far north as Burlington. Davis, more accustomed to workplace orientations, found the house party a welcome surprise.

“I had a lot of emails offering to support me, so it was really very helpful to be able to put faces to names,” Davis said. “We can attract people with great jobs, but if they are living in environments that are inhospitable, that job is only going to keep them for so long. Building community helps people get firmly planted.”

Davis has gone on to write a series of annual director’s reports, the latest of which she just released this month.

“It is of critical importance that Vermonters of dominant groups recognize that equity — in this case, racial equity — benefits the whole,” she said in one, “and that continuing to ignore or actively resist efforts to undo structural inequity will lead to the continued shrinking of Vermont’s local and tourist economies, the hollowing of its school systems and underperformance of students from marginalized groups, the weakening of its state workforce, and the exodus of its young people who are leaving in search of greater diversity and social cohesion.”

Reed, for his part, has followed up his first meet-and-greet with a half-dozen more events for new arrivals ranging from Connor Cyrus, the young co-host of Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition, to Norma Hardy, the former law enforcement retiree who’s now the first Black woman to serve as police chief in Brattleboro and the state.

Guests at Reed’s get-togethers share tips on where to find everything from a competent hairstylist for Black hair to places to speak in Spanish or shop for specialty Asian foods.

“When we think about diverse recruitment, it certainly goes beyond race and ethnicity,” said Davis, listing categories ranging from ability to LGBTQ+.

With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reed has moved his in-person events online, where participants mingle in randomly assigned breakout rooms.

“I’m not sophisticated enough to be able to engineer who goes to which group,” he said.

Racial justice advocates know retention isn’t as simple as mastering such technology. They note continuing challenges with disparities in pay and police traffic stops and reports of harassment and hate crimes. But as they work to combat such problems, they’re continuing to welcome newcomers.

“I don’t want an exclusive corner on the market of meet-and-greets,” Reed said. “We are doing these in the hopes that others will follow suit.”




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