‘Visible in Vermont’ sends a message

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    Paij Wadley-Bailey shows a message on a white board, part of "Visible in Vermont: Our Stories Our Voices," an exhibit on display at the Quechee Public Library through the end of Jan. 2020. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2020 6:13:37 PM
Modified: 1/24/2020 6:13:26 PM

Shortly after moving to Vermont in 1983, Sha’an Mouliert ran into a puzzling phenomenon.

“People would walk up to me and call me Carmen,” said Mouliert, who lives in St. Johnsbury. “I didn’t know what that meant.”

Then one day Mouliert looked out her window and saw a tall black woman walking by. “I went outside and said, ‘Hi, are you Carmen?’ ” she recalled.

That solved the mystery, but not the problem. Nor was Carmen the only black woman in town for whom Mouliert was mistaken. There were two or three others, including one woman who sold baked goods.

“People would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I just love your baked goods.’ ...When I would correct them, they would argue with me,” Mouliert said. “I was not visible.”

Experiences like these compelled Mouliert to get involved with “Visible in Vermont: Our Stories Our Voices,” a photo/story exhibition that’s on display at Quechee Public Library through the end of the month, with a reception and panel discussion scheduled for Saturday. The exhibition features portraits of people of color who live in Vermont, including several from the Upper Valley. In the portraits, the subjects are holding whiteboards or paper on which they’ve written statements relating their interactions with the wider community and sentiments about race.

Some show blatant racism, but most depict subtler types of ignorance and insensitivity that nonetheless alienate. Alicia Maddox, a 37-year-old multi-racial woman from White River Junction posing with her five children, holds a sign that reads “Are you the nanny?” Wayne Miller, a 32-year-old black man from Hartland, holds a sign that reads “Yeah, but you’re not ‘Black’ Black!” and “You’re so articulate.”

The “Visible in Vermont” exhibition grew out of the Brattleboro-based Root Social Justice Center’s “I Am Vermont Too” project, which began in 2014 as a way to give people of color a voice in majority-white communities. Modeled after the I, Too, Am Harvard Initiative that spread across social media earlier that year, the project resulted in an exhibition at the Vermont Statehouse in 2017. Last year, organizers secured a grant from the Vermont Humanities Council to bring it to three sites around the state. It has also been at the Bennington Museum and Milton High School.

“The purpose of the exhibit is to validate the experiences of people of color and value their contributions to the community,” said Mouliert, 71, a long-time activist and co-coordinator of the project.

Mouliert said she witnesses ignorance and insensitivity around race firsthand. She remembers being hopeful when she moved to Vermont, thinking she could raise her son as “a child of the universe.” Then one day when he was 6 or 7, he was walking with his father when someone called him a racial slur — a word he had never heard.

“At that point, I realized I didn’t have the privilege of raising a child of the universe,” Mouliert said.

Even now, such occurrences take place. Recently, one of Mouliert’s grandsons, who also lives in Vermont, was called a variation on a racial epithet behind his back by a woman in his apartment building, she said.

Some of the people who’ve participated in the “I Am Vermont Too” project can relate to such experiences; they come to the photo shoot with a lot of material. Others say they’ve never experienced a micro-aggression, an everyday term or behavior directed toward a minority that conveys prejudice or racial insensitivity.

Mouliert said she never tries to influence people on what to write but sometimes helps them analyze the interactions they’ve had. She also encourages them to pose in the way they feel most comfortable.

The portraits — smiling, solemn, friendly, defiant — feature people of African, Middle-Eastern, Asian, Native American and Latino descent. They wrap around the walls of the small library, above a piano, a row of computer workstations and a display of movies featuring Colin Firth.

The exhibition is timely for the library, said Assistant Librarian Marieke Sperry, who was hanging placards beneath the portraits on Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ve been doing quite a bit of programming around race-related issues,” she said. “It’s a ‘thing’ in Hartford. There’s a lot of discussion around it.”

Racial tensions arose in Hartford last year during a series of public meetings around a proposal to amend the town’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy to better protect undocumented immigrants. During one Selectboard meeting, an immigrants rights supporter lashed out at Selectboard member Jameson Davis, who is black, for not backing the proposal, calling him a “race traitor.”

Davis is one of the panelists scheduled to speak at the reception for “Visible in Vermont,” which is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at the library. Some of the people featured in the exhibition are also on the panel.

Sperry said the exhibit has already been well-received. “Quite a few people have come to see it,” she said. “I was surprised by how far people are willing to travel.”

“Visible in Vermont” is on display at Quechee Public Library through Jan. 31. For hours and information, visit quecheelibrary.org or call 802-295-1232.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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