Stepping Up: These Vermonters of Color Want to Bring Their Perspectives to Local Office | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Stepping Up: These Vermonters of Color Want to Bring Their Perspectives to Local Office

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Published February 24, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 3, 2021 at 10:05 a.m.

  • Greg Nesbit
  • Tina Cook

Running for local government in Vermont requires an investment of time and effort by any office seeker but demands something more from a candidate of color. Often, it means being the first nonwhite person to run in a municipality. And it always carries the risk of racial harassment such as that suffered in recent years by successful campaigners of color.

Nevertheless, this Town Meeting Day, March 2, at least a dozen Black, Indigenous and other people of color are seeking seats on town councils and school boards, hoping to bring a greater diversity of voices to local decision making.

"I'm going to fix the structures that have been historically difficult for the most marginalized, and then everyone can benefit from that," Tina Cook, who would be the first Black member of the Bennington Selectboard, said in an interview last week.

She and the other candidates of color are running during the largest racial justice movement the United States has seen since the 1960s — and amid a surge of racial harassment aimed at Black officeholders in Vermont.

Kiah Morris sounded the alarm in 2018 when she resigned as a Bennington state representative in the face of a sustained harassment campaign involving a local white nationalist. At the time, Morris was the only Black woman legislator. 

That same year, 130 miles to the north, Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), a Black man who grew up in Senegal, went to the police about racist emails he had received since being elected in 2017. The screeds had turned threatening and mentioned his family.

Dieng, who is now running for mayor of Burlington, still encounters racism, though he said he tries to brush it off. And after years in local politics, Dieng said, he knows which houses to avoid when he's knocking on doors.

"There are people who have ideologies of white supremacy," Dieng told Seven Days last week. "It exists here."

Another Black officeholder, Alicia Barrow, stepped down from the Hartford Selectboard last month, citing the "blatant bigotry" in a town where she said she no longer felt "safe nor welcome." And in Rutland, the first person of color elected to the city's board of aldermen has decided not to seek reelection. Lisa Ryan, a Black woman who was the top vote-getter in 2019, was harassed after she advocated for implicit bias training for city officials.

"We have some communities around the state that have made it clear they're not interested in equity and diversity," said Xusana Davis, the Vermont official whose job is to promote both. "And they've made it clear through things like lax enforcement of laws or criminal protections for people who are victimized based on their demographics." That has contributed to harassment and "terrorizing residents of color," she said.

Those experiences, and a desire for truly representative government, prompted several racial justice advocates to create the Bright Leadership Institute. Named after Louvenia Bright, the first Black woman to serve in the Vermont House of Representatives, the institute was unveiled earlier this month and is intended to mentor and guide BIPOC Vermonters who want to run for office. Applications for the first session should open in mid-spring, according to Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County NAACP.

"It came about from a vision of a more diverse and inclusive political Vermont," Gillom said.

The group, seeded with a $100,000 grant from the Northfield Savings Bank Foundation, has partnered with a public communications firm to help with campaign basics: speaking to the media, speechwriting and living in the public eye. The training will include strategies to deal with pushback and harassment. The institute is intended to create a community and a sounding board for people of color in the political arena.

"So we can not only be elected to these positions — but we can stay there," said Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP. Her predecessor, Tabitha Moore, resigned and moved out of Wallingford last year after being harassed.

"Being in the spotlight, being out in front of everybody speaking your truth is not an easy thing to do, especially in a state that's majority white," Schultz added. The goal is to empower candidates to feel that "I deserve to be here, and the things I say are true," she continued. "They're my lived experiences, and the things I say matter."

Seven Days spoke with five candidates of color seeking local office this Town Meeting Day. Here are their stories.

There's so much potential here.

Tina Cook, Bennington Selectboard candidate

Tina Cook visited Vermont in 1999 and never left.

Originally from southeastern California, she was dating someone from the Green Mountain State and they came here on a vacation. A blizzard hit just as they arrived.

The 12-foot snowdrifts outside of their small cabin near Rupert didn't turn her off. She applied for a job in Manchester on a whim, was offered the position and accepted.

She soon got a taste of small-town charm. When her boyfriend's old Ford pickup broke down on a snowy road as she commuted to her first day of work, a passing driver stopped and offered her a ride.

Oh man, I've read about this in books, Cook recalled thinking. This is where I die!

Not only did she survive, but the driver offered her daily rides to work.

"It's what kept me in Vermont," Cook said. "The people are just so amazing."

Cook still believes that, but in nearly 22 years in Vermont, she has also seen the ugly side of the state. Last summer, as she contemplated running for the Bennington Selectboard, she took a step few candidates would feel was necessary: She sent her 12-year-old son to live in New York with his father. Though the boy wanted to go, she also feared for his safety.

"I expect to be a target," she explained.

"Motherhood is most important for me," Cook said. "So for me to have to sacrifice that, I feel a little bit bitter ... I'm mad at the people that are forcing people to live scared like this."

Even before running for office, she had encounters with local police officers that made her feel unwelcome, she said. She's not alone: An outside review and report released in 2020 found that the Bennington Police Department fostered a "warrior mentality" and had "sown deep mistrust" in the community. Soon afterward, the town paid a Black man $30,000 to settle a lawsuit he'd filed claiming he had been racially profiled during a 2013 traffic stop that led to his imprisonment on drug charges. The Vermont Supreme Court threw out his conviction, ruling that the stop was unlawful.

"This settlement does not alleviate the need for top-to-bottom changes to a deeply troubled police department and to a municipal leadership that continues to deny there is even a problem with unconstitutional police practices in Bennington," Lia Ernst, an American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont senior staff attorney, said in a statement announcing the settlement. "The people of Bennington deserve far better."

Cook said the police have pulled her over some 20 times, though they've often let her off with a warning or reminder to fix something on her car, such as a cracked windshield. 

An officer once stopped her just a block from her home. As he looked at her Vermont driver's license, which naturally displayed her address, the cop asked if she was "from around here." Whatever his intent, Cook said, the question made her feel like an interloper.

"It's just an old-boy network here," she said.

 Cook wants to upend the status quo. She described herself as a "bully basher," someone willing to step up for those in need. The first-time candidate serves on both the homeless and education committees of the Rutland Area NAACP and said she would like to eradicate hunger in town by opening community food gardens. 

"We're going to look into possibly finding ways to deliver free food to people who want it, not even just people who need it," she said.

Citing the opioid epidemic as an urgent problem in the town, Cook also pitched the idea of expanding telehealth and mobile mental health services "to treat the trauma so that we don't have to have the intervention in expensive programs at the other end, such as policing."

A website design and internet marketing professional, Cook said she's heard complaints about how the town communicates with its residents.

"The information is there," she said. "It's just not easily accessible. I'd like to streamline a lot of that."

Laura Payne met Cook a couple of years ago at Soul Food Sunday, a local gathering where people of color share a meal and conversation. Adding Cook's perspective to an all-white board is important, Payne said.

"Tina's a great person," Payne added. "She's very approachable, she loves helping people, and I think this is just a continuation of that for her."

Cook said her son encouraged her to run for office. "You could get a job at an abuse shelter and help some people," he told her, "or you could run for town government and help more." 

Candidates don't run for local office in search of fame and fortune, Cook noted. "These are relatively volunteer positions," she said. "We're not doing this for personal gains; it certainly isn't financial."

She's in a crowded field. Eight candidates, including incumbent Jim Carroll, are vying for two at-large seats on the board. Win or lose, Cook said, she will continue to contribute to her community. But if elected, she wants to transform town government so that it listens to voices of color and "is equitable for all."

"There's so much potential here," Cook said, "if we could have the proper leadership."

— S.G.

I have to dig deeper.

Thomas Franco, Rutland Board of Aldermen candidate
Thomas Franco - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Thomas Franco

Thomas Franco was an aspiring doctor when he realized that his real passion was policy.

While a premed student at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, Franco volunteered at a free health clinic outside of Cleveland. Talking to the patients helped him recognize the societal inequities that lead to poverty and, in turn, poor health outcomes.

"It was just like this moment where I realized, OK, if I'm going to make a difference, and I am going to change the narrative here, I have to dig deeper," Franco said.

That change in direction ultimately helped lead 25-year-old Franco to Rutland, where he lives with his partner, George Hodulik. A first-time candidate, Franco is one of 17 people — including three incumbents — running for six at-large seats on the city's board of aldermen. 

Though he's only lived in Rutland since last October, Franco says he can help make a difference using his "unique perspective."

"I also have skills, both from my lived experience and also my professional and educational background, that are often missing from that conversation of, how do we move forward?" Franco said. "And I thought, I can either sit down and wait my turn, or I can just start talking to people and start getting out there and start running. I chose to do the latter."

Franco was born in conservative West Texas, the son of two pastors. His father emigrated from Mexico as a teen, attracted by the story "that the streets in the U.S. were literally lined with gold," Franco said. His father worked on farms across the South before starting a landscaping business in their hometown, San Angelo.

"I grew up in poverty, not really knowing I was living in poverty," Franco said. "I think my parents made a lot of hard choices and sacrifices so that, in the end, we never really went without. But that just wasn't the case for a lot of my community members."

It wasn't until he took advanced classes in middle and high school with students from upper-class neighborhoods that he understood inequity. Before that, "everyone around me was going through [poverty] at the same time," he said.

He was attracted to politics in November 2015 after attending a fiery speech on the Cleveland State University campus by an underdog presidential candidate: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

"It just was like this breath of fresh air" compared to the conservative views he'd been exposed to in Texas, Franco said. "It inspired me to be bold."

The aspiring pol went on to intern with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) in Washington, D.C. After graduating, he joined Teach for America and taught sixth-grade math in California. 

Franco and Hodulik eventually came east to Cambridge, Mass., so that Franco could study public policy at Harvard University. As the pandemic took hold, he took the year off from school and moved to Vermont, Hodulik's home state.

Franco has kept busy. He recently completed a remote fellowship in Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He's now designing analytical tools for educators to monitor and support student success for the Virginia Department of Education, and he's working part time with Rural Innovation Strategies, a Vermont firm consulting on broadband deployment issues.

Franco only launched his campaign on January 19. If elected, one of his first priorities would be to advance social and racial justice by creating a city equity committee and implementing bias training for officials. 

"There's a history here," he said.

Advocating for such training prompted harassment directed at Alderwoman Lisa Ryan, the first person of color to serve on the board. She's told media outlets that's why she's not running for a third term this year.

Ryan and other members of the board condemned one of their colleagues, Paul Clifford, in 2019 after he posted an insensitive meme about white privilege. Clifford later apologized.

Franco said he feels supported by the community and is ready to put himself out there as an elected official.

"I think too much is at stake for me to fall into fear, which is the goal for a lot of those folks who make those harassments," he said.

Franco has collected endorsements from state Rep. William Notte (D-Rutland City), as well as two current members of the board of aldermen.

Jennie Gartner, a politically active high school teacher, said she's impressed with Franco's vision for the city. He spoke passionately about economic development, how poverty can impact kids' lives and how city government can help.

"Thomas has a really unique combination of expertise and skills, especially for such a young person," Gartner said. "I think anyone who meets Thomas is going to say, 'This is a wicked intelligent, really thoughtful, really open-minded and really caring individual.'" 

— S.G.

'There's someone like me on there.'

Esther Thomas, Middlebury Selectboard Candidate
Esther Thomas - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Esther Thomas

It's not every day that a candidate for local government receives a musical endorsement from Officer Clemmons, the singing policeman from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." But Esther Thomas, who's running for a one-year seat on the Middlebury Selectboard, recently won his backing.

A video posted on her campaign's Facebook page features actor François Clemmons — former artist in residence at Middlebury College, and one of the first Black actors with a regular role in a children's series — decked out in a periwinkle blue tunic and chunky strands of beads, singing an original song in support of Thomas. The two became friends through their church, the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society.

"Won't you vote for Esther?" Clemmons beseeches in his soulful baritone. "Esther, Esther Thomas, so kind and thoughtful. Esther Thomas — oh Lord, she's our gal."

The gal in question is a residence director at Middlebury College who moved to Vermont in June 2019 with her two young children. She had recently separated from her spouse and was in search of a fresh start and a place to put down roots, she said.

Thomas grew up in what she calls "the inner city" of Bridgeport, Conn. She went to Western Connecticut State University, and then earned two master's degrees — one in corporate communications and public relations and the other in teaching — before launching a career in higher education at universities in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

When she toured Middlebury before accepting a job offer, she asked herself whether she could imagine her kids playing in the parks there.

"I saw this as a place where kids could be kids longer," she said. "I wanted them to have the experience of playing outside, going hiking. I saw that I could have that here."

She accepted the position: overseeing residence advisers and helping students navigate problems, including disciplinary issues.

Thomas quickly dove into the community, joining the Unitarian congregation, participating in coffee meetups with fellow parents and joining the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, where she now sits on the board.

When a seat opened up on the Middlebury Selectboard in November, a friend encouraged Thomas to run.

"My answer was, 'Why not?'" Thomas said. "I feel I can bring something different to the table from my experience as a single mom working full time, but also as a woman of color living in Vermont." One of her goals, she said, is "to make the board a place where folks can see, 'Hey, there's someone like me on there.'"

Thomas is interested in affordable housing, access to healthy food and policies that encourage young, working families to stay in Vermont, but she doesn't have a formal platform. Instead, she said she sees the one-year position as an opportunity to listen to and learn from constituents. She's campaigned by connecting with people on social media and holding virtual Sunday teas. She's mailed postcards to every resident in Middlebury.

"I feel the love," she said of the community's response. People have donated to her campaign via ActBlue, and they've written letters to the editor of the Addison County Independent and posts on Front Porch Forum showing their support.

But, she said, some residents have demonstrated a potential leeriness about electing a single mother with young children. People have posed questions like, "Do you have the time to do this?"

"Instead of saying, 'Your voice is important ... How can I support you?' It's like, 'Girl, you can't do that,'" she said. "They don't say it like that. But that's what I'm hearing ... 'You're taking too much on.'"

"If we all thought like that, let me tell you, women wouldn't be doing half of what they're doing right now," she said. "We wouldn't be working. We would just be home. Because, yes, it's hard."

Joanna Colwell, who directs Otter Creek Yoga, befriended Thomas through their church and is a campaign volunteer.

Colwell noted that the Middlebury Selectboard has historically been composed of older, white men. The positions are unpaid and require a lot of time, she said, and tend to attract people in positions of privilege.

When Colwell learned that Thomas was running, she said she, too, initially thought it would be a lot for Thomas to take on.

But then, she asked herself, Don't I want to live in a world where single parents and younger people and people of color and moms are at the table? Her answer: Yes. I'd love to live in that world.

— A.N.

She saw me as a person.

Travia Childs, south Burlington School Board candidate
Travia Childs - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Travia Childs

Before the pandemic, Travia Childs would ride her tricycle around Burlington, passing out cupcakes, fruit and cold water to those in need, she said. She'd finish her ride at the patch of grass next to the downtown Green Mountain Transit depot, where she'd chat with people while they ate together. Her custom trike, with a basket on the front and back, is "the only one in Vermont," she wrote recently on her Facebook campaign page, "just like me."

The U.S. Navy Reserve lieutenant and mother of four is running for a two-year seat on the South Burlington School Board. She faces two candidates, James P. Johnson Jr. and Scott Bronson; if elected, she would be the only person of color on the board.

Childs moved to Vermont from Tennessee in 2017 to lecture as an adjunct faculty member in Champlain College's MBA program. She now teaches online business classes for American InterContinental University and Colorado Christian University. She is in the process of retiring from her Navy Reserve position as a supply officer after 11 years of service.

After moving to Vermont, Childs recalled, she visited a fair where the Skinny Pancake was serving crêpes, which she'd never tasted. "This older Caucasian lady was standing there and said, 'Well, baby, try mine first.' So, I'm thinking, It's going to be good. It's going to be all right. Because she saw me as a person."

Her youngest child is a senior at South Burlington High School. Childs said she chose the city based on the strength of its school system — even though a fellow professor of color told her that her son might be more comfortable in Burlington, which has three times as many nonwhite students. But Childs thought the South Burlington school would give her son "an equal opportunity to be successful." His positive experience there has prepared him for the future, she said.

Childs declined to weigh in on the Rebels mascot controversy, which flared just before her son started at the school. The board voted to drop the name in 2017 because of its association with the Confederacy.

Childs said she'd like the district to hire more teachers and staff of color. When BIPOC students see a person of color who is successful, "they believe they can do the same thing," Childs said. 

While the school board recently voted unanimously to raise the Black Lives Matter flag at district schools, Childs said that is a symbolic, not a substantive, step. "The Black Lives Matter flag is just like a Band-Aid," she said. "It's not solving a problem."

She said she's also wary of diversity training, something she's heard the school board promote at a recent meeting.

"Diversity is not throwing a bunch of people in one room or class," she said. "You have to understand the culture of the people, and you can't do that unless you're one of the people." 

As she campaigns, most people she's talked to seem ready for a change, she said, but on Facebook she's received messages questioning her military rank and credentials. Childs received an undergraduate degree from Georgia Southwestern State University, an MBA from the University of Phoenix, and a PhD in global operations and supply chain management from Capella University. The latter two schools are online.

"They're trying to find stuff, but there's nothing out there," she said. "I guess it's hard to see a woman of color that has a bachelor's in chemistry, an MBA and a doctorate."

She's focusing on the issues. She said she'd take a student-centered approach to her work on the board. "It's imperative that our minority student body and parents feel represented," she said during an online forum. She also believes in bringing back high school classes in finance and life skills that the district eliminated.

Childs said her experience managing finances as a Navy disbursing officer would come in handy when reviewing future school budgets. "Being in the military, you need to make sure you know where every penny is," she said. As a single mother, she said she also understands the importance of keeping property taxes down to make living in the community affordable.

She favors keeping the district's school resource officer, a role that has been under debate statewide. At a candidates' forum, she said SROs protect students and, in light of school shootings, the position is "a must, not an option."

Sally Borden, a South Burlington resident and executive director of the nonprofit KidSafe Collaborative, attended one of Childs' Zoom sessions. She was impressed with the candidate's qualifications and was encouraged that a woman of color is running. 

"Diversity brings a different lens" that affects everything from budget issues to the school district's mission to the daily operations of the school system,Borden said. "That lens enriches all of us as a community."

— A.N.

I was taken aback ... It was hurtful.

Reier Erickson, Maple Run Unified School Board candidate
Reier Erickson With His Wife, Lauren; Daughter, Dune; And Son, Darwin - STINA BOOTH
  • Stina Booth
  • Reier Erickson With His Wife, Lauren; Daughter, Dune; And Son, Darwin

When Reier Erickson and his wife, Lauren Dees-Erickson, moved to Vermont in 2012, they were smitten. "It was like my childhood," said Erickson, who grew up in International Falls, Minn., a town on the Canadian border with a population of roughly 6,000 people.

The couple lived in Middlebury, then Bristol, but left in 2018 with their small children for a two-year stint in the West African nation of Liberia. Lauren worked as a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor, and Erickson was a stay-at-home dad who volunteered as PTA vice chair at the American International School in Monrovia.

They returned to Vermont last year and purchased a home in St. Albans City. As rallies for racial justice spread during the summer, Erickson helped form a community group, Neighbors for a Safer Saint Albans, to examine local police misconduct and the presence of the three school resource officers in the Maple Run Unified School District. Seven Days has reported on several incidents of police misconduct in St. Albans, including a case in which a school resource officer directed a slur at a disabled student. The student's family recently received a $30,000 payout from the school district.

In September, Erickson had an exchange with a St. Albans resident, Katie Messier, on the St. Albans Neighborhood Watch Facebook page. Erickson attempted to explain why, as a Black man, he felt school resource officers make schools less safe for his children. One of Messier's responses read, in part: "If you think it's so unsafe here then leave. Go to a place where you think your family will be 'safer.' As a parent that's your job ... I would never live in a place where I didn't feel like my children were safe." Messier declined to comment to Seven Days.

"I was taken aback because I really did my best to be very considerate of the white fragility I was kind of pushing up against," said Erickson. "It was hurtful. It was sad, and it made me feel emotional."

That interaction was the main reason Erickson — now a mail carrier in Burlington — decided to run for the Maple Run Unified School Board, whose members are elected from St. Albans City, St. Albans Town and Fairfield.

He's running for one of two open St. Albans City seats, against incumbent Nilda Gonnella-French and former city mayor Peter DesLauriers — who, in a small-town twist, is Messier's father. (Messier is also running, for a St. Albans Town seat on the school board but faces a different opponent.)

DesLauriers supports keeping the school resource officers; Erickson does not, citing the incident involving the resource officer's slur and the sizable annual cost of employing police officers in the schools. Gonnella-French noted in a recent forum that the jobs are currently under review by a district committee.

Steven LaRosa, who is retiring this year from the school board, recalled Erickson reading from the district's mission statement during a board meeting months ago, noting the district strives to be a place where "all can learn, achieve and succeed." Erickson said that the presence of armed officers in the schools hinders his children's success. That convinced LaRosa, who helped pen the mission statement, that the SRO positions are a bad idea. He's endorsed Erickson.

Erickson said he knows that running against DesLauriers, someone with deep roots in the community, means he has his work cut out for him. But he sees his experience living abroad and in different parts of the country, including Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C., as an asset.

"I think one thing that is really common in Vermont is the idea that I've been here so long, so that makes me more than you, and I think that's a really weird way to view the world," said Erickson. "I think it's fine if you live in the same place your entire life. I also see travel and ... seeing different places as being kind of advantageous in terms of policy making."

DesLauriers, who taught in the district for 42 years, said in an email that he feels that it's "an advantage to know the area, the people, the history, and the past problems faced and conquered."

Kate Larose, who met Erickson through Neighbors for a Safer Saint Albans, said the notion of who is a "real Vermonter" is pervasive in Franklin County politics. As new people move into the community, she said, it's important to have elected officials who reflect this demographic shift and who are actively working to improve the lives of all students.

Change, Erickson believes, requires introspection to "see what we can do to make our schools better and safer for everyone." That means history lessons should cover the Abenaki, slavery and Japanese internment camps during World War II.

Erickson said the racism directed at some public officials has sent the message that "doing this kind of thing puts a target on your back, especially as a BIPOC member." Before deciding to run, Erickson talked with his wife about what it could mean for their family. They agreed that it was an important thing to do — not just for their own kids, but for all marginalized students.

Despite some of the ugliness he's faced, Erickson still believes in the potential of rural America — which he said often is miscast as "this factory for bigotry."

"I think small-town America actually really cares for each other," he said. "And I think that's the place where people can come together in a way that's much more real and authentic."

— A.N.