COLCHESTER -- More than 250 social workers, educators and activists gathered at St. Michael's College on May 31 for the first "Creating a Welcoming Community" Conference. The event encouraged participants to value Vermont's growing diversity, and offered workshops focused on how to help refugees and immigrants adjust.
The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program estimates that more than 5000 refugees have been relocated to the state since 1980. As opening speaker Madeleine Kunin -- herself an immigrant from Switzerland -- noted in her opening address, "Vermont is changing."
Kunin's address, in which she spoke about her own difficult experiences in coming to this country, was followed by a presentation of Ziad Hamzeh's award-winning documentary The Letter.
Organizers couldn't have chosen a better film to illustrate the need for their event. The Letter chronicles the saga of Lewiston, Maine, an almost entirely white town roughly the size of Burlington. In 2001, 1100 Somali refugees began resettling there. Many of Vermont's recent arrivals are also from Somalia, and other African nations.
At first, Lewiston welcomed its new residents, and earned a reputation as a model community. But an election swept the immigrant-friendly mayor from office. The new mayor soon released a letter in which he asked the Somalis to stop coming to the town.
"This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all," he wrote. "We need breathing room. Our city is maxed-out financially, physically and emotionally."
The letter touched off a firestorm, which the film explores in detail. Somali immigrants reveal old bullet wounds and talk about how Lewiston is "heaven." White residents claim -- falsely, say people who work with the refugees -- that the Somalis get preferential treatment from the government. The white supremacist group World Church of the Creator held a rally in Lewiston to support the mayor's actions. Perhaps the film's most shocking quote was from an African-American businessman who has been hearing from people across the country, relieved that "We're not them."
"Hello," he says. "You are them."
How is Vermont different from Maine?
Conference organizer Phyl Newbeck suggests one difference -- the Vermont Teacher Diversity Scholarship Program. Started in the late 1990s with money allocated by then-governor Howard Dean, the VTDSP actively seeks to diversify the faculty and staff of the state's public schools.
The program recruits "scholars" of diverse backgrounds interested in teaching in Vermont. The VTDSP requires them to attend college in-state, and earn a teaching certificate. Once they begin teaching, the VTDSP forgives $4000 of their student loans each year for three years. The VTDSP was the conference's primary sponsor; Newbeck is its director. In 2005, Governor Douglas allocated $100,000 for this loan forgiveness program.
According to Newbeck, the VTDSP currently has 18 scholars, four of whom have completed their requirements and are teaching in Dorset, Northfield and Burlington. At the conference, she passed out a press release announcing the VTDSP's two newest scholars, Floribeth Jiminez, who emigrated from Costa Rica, and Emmanuel Riby-Williams, who came to Vermont from Ghana in 2002. Both currently work as para-educators; Jiminez at Rutland High School, Riby-Williams at U-32 in Montpelier.
Riby-Williams, an immigrant who describes himself as "an economic refugee," says the program will make it possible for him to return to the classroom. He taught for three years in Ghana, and spent three years as an assistant superintendent. But his education there doesn't quite translate to a U.S. college degree. He'll have to complete 30 credits to earn a Bachelor's from Johnson State College; he plans to start classes this summer.
He says he wouldn't be able to do it without the loan forgiveness program. Riby-Williams, who supports his wife and three children, says getting ahead in the U.S. has been difficult. The family lives in public housing, and his wife has been unable to get a job.
"As I talk to you now," he says, "I don't have $1000 in my savings account. And you are talking about $12,000 to $15,000. It's tough."
Riby-Williams says he hasn't encountered discrimination in Vermont, though when he arrived in Montpelier he did attract attention. "Everyone else came to a standstill looking at me," he remembers. "I felt bad about it."
He says recruiting diverse teachers into the state's classrooms will show students that immigrants like him can be community leaders. And it will make immigrant children feel more at home.
"We do have kids from diverse backgrounds," he says. "We should have teachers from diverse backgrounds, too."