Mary Brown-Guillory, president of the Champlain Area NAACP, left, introduces other officers of the local chapter at a meeting Tuesday.
The mood was celebratory Tuesday night as about 60 people gathered at a meeting of Vermont's newly founded chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"This is a momentous occasion," said Mary Brown-Guillory of Burlington, president of the Champlain Area NAACP.
The group will fight racism and work to educate Vermont on issues of fairness, she said. The chapter has 168 members so far and needs more, Brown-Guillory emphasized to the crowd gathered at the Waterman Building on the University of Vermont campus.
"We cannot do this without you," she said.
According to the organizers, the chapter is the first in Vermont to affiliate with the national civil rights group, which since its founding more than a century ago has played a pivotal role in battles for equal access to jobs and housing, integrated schools and voting rights. There was an earlier effort to create a chapter in Vermont, but that group was not directly tied to the national organization, Brown-Guillory said.
The new chapter will specifically work to ensure fair housing laws are enforced, fight labeling and negative stereotyping of children of color in school and make sure people understand their constitutional rights in the event they are stopped without cause by police. It costs $35 to join.
Members are already weighing in on race-related issues. Brown-Guillory was among the activists who on Monday night urged the Burlington City Council not to confirm New York City deputy police inspector Brandon del Pozo as Burlington's new police chief. The council voted 11-0 to confirm del Pozo, despite concerns of critics who said he worked for a department known for racial profiling and targeting of Muslim communities.
"I'm concerned that our political leaders do not hear us," Brown-Guillory said Tuesday night, when asked about the issue during the chapter meeting.
The chapter is already facing an internal flap. At the meeting, Burlington-raised Vicki Garrison said she was concerned about the fact that officers for the chapter were elected without an official warning to let people know. Garrison said she'd like to be an officer and would bring the experience of growing up as a person of color in Burlington at a time when it felt like there were only four black families in the city. Today Burlington is more diverse and Vermont is also changing, but slowly. About 95 percent of Vermont residents are white, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau figures.
"I'm a native black Vermonter," Garrison said. "We're pretty rare."
The officers were elected at an organizational meeting in April, according to Brown-Guillory. The meeting was warned, but the election was not on the warned agenda, she acknowledged. Representatives of the national group advised local chapter organizers that the election should happen at the April meeting and so it went forward, Brown-Guillory said.
She thanked Garrison for her comments and said at least two officer slots remained open for anyone who wants to run. Brown-Guillory also said she notified Garrison of the April meeting, but she did not attend.
People of all backgrounds and races can join the chapter and serve as officers. The crowd that gathered Tuesday included people with varying shades of skin, from dark to light to in-between.
Ethan Fontneau of Burlington came to the meeting because a friend told him about it. The young tech worker grew up black in small-town Georgia, Vt., and says he never experienced racism, at least overtly. "When I grew up I didn't notice anything, but that could have been me being super young."
It's good to have the NAACP chapter locally, and he hopes to attend future meetings, Fontneau said. "I think it's great to have the representation, definitely."