Black women persevere to lead in Vermont despite harassment
Mia Schultz has watched three other Black women in Vermont leave leadership posts in the mostly white state because of harassment and threats. She’s also seen Black acquaintances move away from the progressive state that is home to Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because they felt unwelcomed.
But the 45-year-old mother of two teenage boys feels called to continue fighting racism, which she’s done since moving to the state from southern California six years ago. Now, the former insurance professional is carrying on a broader fight for her community in her new leadership role as president of one of Vermont’s two NAACP branches.
Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery and is remembered as being both 94% white and liberal. Missing from that image, though, are realities like the state’s history of eugenics starting in the 1920s that led to sterilizations, said Pablo Bose, an associate geography professor at the University of Vermont.
A recent report from the University of Vermont continued to find racial disparities in traffic stops with Black drivers stopped at rate of 459 per 1,000 Black residents compared to 256 stops of white drivers per 1,000 white residents based on data from 2014-2019. The state also leads New England in racist propaganda, such as stickers, banners and flyers, from the white supremacist group Patriot Front, according to the Vermont Intelligence Center.
Since 2018, at least three Black female leaders in Vermont, including a state lawmaker, a town board member and the former head of the Rutland area NAACP branch, have left their roles in response to persistent harassment and sometimes violent threats. Democratic state Rep. Kiah Morris, who was the only Black woman in the Vermont state Legislature, resigned that year partially in response to harassment from a self-described white nationalist.
“What is clear is that the way we treat electoral politics, candidates and (elected officials) from marginalized identities in Vermont is unacceptable,” Morris, now politics director for the advocacy group Rights & Democracy and creator of a documentary video project about racism in Vermont.
Anyone holding public office or high profile advocacy roles takes on risks as a public figure, but Black women face harassment and threats of violence aimed at them for both their gender and race. It’s a challenge Black women leaders across the United States face and coincides with a surge of women, and women of color, running for office.
Lisa Ryan, who became the first woman of color to be elected to the city board of Rutland, Vermont, recently said she would not seek a third term in the city where she grew up. She called the last two years almost unbearable starting when she requested that city employees get implicit bias training after another board member put a racist meme on Facebook.
“It wasn’t until that point where things really started to get just gritty and scary. The harassment, the bullying, the name calling from people I know and from people I don’t know,” she said during a recent press briefing highlighting the challenges women of color face serving in elected office.
“I’m sorry to have to step out of my role but it is time to put my family first, my self first and my safety first,” Ryan said during the briefing.
In many cases what these Black women are talking about — from Black Lives Matter to defunding police — challenges the status quo and is seen as a threat to people who dislike or push back against criticism of white supremacy and misogyny, said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a visiting practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Many times the messages are delivered anonymously through social media, adding a layer of impunity.
“It is very easy to lob these very violent threats against these women’s lives and their families in ways that, you know, 15 years ago weren’t possible,” she said.
For that to change, people need to hold each other accountable, said Curtiss Reed, Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Equity. White residents need to confront people in their family, community or churches who are racist or anti-Semitic and say: This is unacceptable and that they must bear the consequences of their words, Reed said.
“And that would be in losing their jobs, in losing status in their community and their reputation as a good citizen,” he said.
To help Black candidates and other people of color run for office in Vermont, the state’s two NAACP branches last month announced the creation of the Bright Leadership Institute, supported by a $100,000 grant.
Just this week during Vermont’s annual town meetings, at least three Black women won seats on town and school boards. Two others lost their bids in their communities.
“I am proud of their political courage to step up to the plate and serve their communities despite the incredible pushback and reasons that they shouldn’t,” said Schultz.
Schultz used to walk around Bennington a lot when she first moved there, but after hearing some trucks rev their engines when she tried to cross the road, she’s found other places to walk, she said. Within the first week of arriving in Vermont, her fifth grade son got pushed against a wall and called a racial slur by a fellow student, she said.
This past summer, when a mural reading “Black Lives Matter” was being painted on the street, a number of protesters stood in the way to try to disrupt the work, the Bennington Banner reported. Several people were arrested.
Schultz brings these experiences and many others into her new position as head of one of the state’s two NAACP branches. She recently developed a Black History Month education guide, which she sent to schools and received appreciative feedback from teachers, she said. She also wants to work with the press to ensure that the stories written about Black people are not always about their trauma and pain.
“That we’re productive members of society who have really, like a lot of things to contribute,” she said.
Schultz has thought about leaving Vermont many times but owns a home and does see change happening ever so slowly.
“It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived,” she said. “And I’m like, I need to enjoy this, too.”
This story has been corrected to show that Tabitha Moore did not resign as president of the Rutland, Vermont, area NAACP, but decided not to seek reelection.