Last month, the City of Burlington and Partnership for Change sponsored a discussion about racial justice: We Can Do Better. Six members of Burlington High School's newspaper (Register) staff, with YWP and teacher David Lamberti's guidance, covered the event. Here is the main story. Click the keyword, Burlington Dialogue for the other pieces. Photos by Kevin Huang
By Emmett Werbel - Burlington High School -- Register Staff
More than 100 members of the Burlington community gathered at the Echo Center in late October to attend Working Together, We Can Do Better: An Intergenerational Community Dialogue on Racial Justice. The event featured speeches from Mayor Weinberger and Police Chief Mike Schirling, as well as small and large group discussions.
The direction of conversation shifted throughout the night from cheerful banter to a more harsh dialogue. While most attendees arrived in high spirits, at times the mood of the discussion became heavy and emotional.
The event was organized to generate broad and collegial conversation. The night began as Mayor Weinberger briskly took the stage and gave a short speech on the topics of the evening.
Attempting to slow down and pause frequently for interpreters to catch up, the Mayor spoke both as a resident and as a representative of the city government. Words of encouragement could be heard throughout the crowd as Mayor Weinberger introduced the beginnings of a new strategic plan for city-wide diversity and equity.
It was clear that the topics were not easy for the Mayor to address. Mr. Weinberger, mayor of just 18 months, at some points stumbled through his speech. He seemed happy to turn the microphone over to Police Chief Mike Schirling.
Mike Schirling, police chief of five years, opened his address calmly and kept his message relatively brief. However, throughout his speech, dissenting voices could be heard muttering around the room. Most notably, some people were upset that the chief made racial bias in the criminal justice system seem like a thing of the past.
Shortly after the chief’s speech, a community organizer named Infinit Culcleasure seized the microphone and spoke about his personal experience. In a remark about the justice system, Mr. Culcleasure said: “Some of us are here because of Trayvon Martin. Some of us are here because of what goes on every day in Burlington.”
Later on, in a special group designated for the mayor and police chief to hear individual complaints, personal stories about police brutality came forward, and Chief Schirling was the target of many harsh remarks. The members of the group made it clear that there are still open wounds when it comes to racial injustice. Many of the people who spoke out in the group at least seemed glad to be heard.
In an interview on Thursday afternoon, Kesha Ram, a young official at City Hall as well as a state legislator, told her story about police brutality growing up in Los Angeles. “When I was thirteen… I was arrested by two LAPD officers, walking down the street with two of my other friends who were also brown… We all just looked like brown kids on the street corner and they arrested us, charged us with “breaking curfew”, and held us in the police station until 3 AM.”
Stories like Ms. Ram’s were not uncommon in the dialogues at the event, and people looked back on them with bitterness. Kyle Ddson, Director of the Center for Service and Civic Engagement at Champlain College, said, “[The dialogue] is particularly difficult because it’s not one thing, it’s pervasive.” This became more and more evident as the night progressed: the issue is made up of a number of smaller problems. In order to start building a path to the future of Burlington, many of these issues will need to be resolved.
One problem is that while racism was once seen as a tangible legal issue, and easy to identify, it now exists as a lingering and widespread racial bias. In many group discussions, the idea of “invisible racism” was brought up.
Safia Haji, a BHS student who served as one of the event’s youth facilitators, spoke to her small group about the prejudice she faces in her classes at school. Ms. Haji described that, as the only African-American student in her honors-level classes, she feels belittled by her peers as well as her teachers.
“They come at me in a way that sends me a message that they think I’m not as intelligent as the other kids,” said Ms. Haji. In response to this, a white group member remarked: “I just wish these things didn’t happen to you. I wish we were better.”
One issue that came up repeatedly throughout the night was how the Burlington community tends to categorize people by race. Chapin Spencer, the Director of the Department of Public Works, said: “Race is a construct of lumping a bunch of people together, so in the process of talking about race it seems like we’re putting people in boxes.”
This concept was brought up in different ways throughout the night. Vincent Mugisha, a Doctoral Student in Leadership and Policy Studies at UVM, who grew up in Uganda, said, “Growing up in Uganda, I never identified as black.” Mr. Mugisha went on to remark that living in Burlington, he finds himself constantly reminded of his black skin.
Undoubtedly, Thursday night’s event was an important communication effort. Many people in Burlington have long felt unheard, and it was clear that repressed feelings were aired. It was widely understood that the event was a first step towards a larger city-wide effort.
Mayor Weinberger and Chief Schirling understood that they were there to mostly hear from the community. In the group discussions, the two officials mostly listened and refrained from entering the conversations. Looking back on the event, Mayor Weinberger remarked: “The sudden shift in direction of the conversation was ultimately helpful and made it a more meaningful and authentic night.”
Later on in the interview, the Mayor said, “Words are always easier than action. This work is hard, and people should be skeptical of our ability to make meaningful change.”
The Mayor’s words summed up the night fairly well: People are angry, and that’s okay. What is important is that the city is ready to listen, and begin reforming, based on what the people of Burlington have to say. <
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