From left, Sha'an Mouliert, Rep. Kiah Morris (D-Bennington), Ebony Nyoni, Senowa Mize-Fox, Mark Hudson
It was hard not to notice the contrast.
The Statehouse's iconic Cedar Creek Room, redolent with the heritage of official Vermont, its walls dotted with portraits of dead white men, was filled Thursday morning with Vermonters of color — advocating for legislation but also wishing simply to be recognized.
"We are invisible," said Sha'an Mouliert of St. Johnsbury. "One of our missions is to ensure that our elected representatives can no longer not see us, can no longer not represent us. We are part of your constituency."
Or, in a phraseoft-repeated during a press conference, "I am Vermont too," a statement that people of color are Vermonters every bit as much as the flintiest son of Ethan Allen. "I Am Vermont Too" is the title of a related photo exhibit in the Statehouse cafeteria, featuring Vermonters of color holding handwritten messages revealing some of the small indignities they suffer in daily life, like strangers touching their curly hair or marveling at their ability to speak English.
"I've been here since I was a teenager, so Vermont is definitely my home," said Ebony Nyoni, cofounder and president of the Vermont chapter of Black Lives Matter. "What I'd like to accomplish is for white Vermonters to see us as legitimate Vermonters."
They were seeking legislative action, including a simple resolution recognizing Black Lives Matter and its work to "affirm black Americans' humanity and resilience in the face of deadly oppression" and toward the "deactivation of systematic racism endured by all people of color in our state." (The House passed it on a voice vote later in the day.)
Still in the writing stages is an omnibus bill to organize disparate civil rights initiatives in state government. "The intention is to establish an entity that will be able to oversee the number of different directions that we've given ... to deal with racial inequality," said Rep. Kiah Morris (D-Bennington). "So it's looking at everything from housing to bias in our schools, reforms we've sought in the justice system, the courts and policing."
Details of the bill are not set because it is still being drafted.
Where these two threads came together is in questioning white Vermonters' sense of complacency about racial issues.
"Some white people may perceive Vermont to be a refuge," Nyoni said. "But if you ask a person of color or someone from a marginalized community, it is definitely not a refuge. There are a lot of challenges that are unique to Vermont, and I think that's due to the population being close to 100 percent white."
When asked what further legislation might be needed, Nyoni expressed the desire for lawmakers to do more to address the needs of "people of color or marginalized communities, or even have in mind people of color and marginalized communities."
Lawmakers will be offered a daily reminder by the photo exhibit on their cafeteria walls.