Questions, quoted on whiteboards in photo portraits of Vermont people of color, read: What island are you from? You don’t look black! What are you? What are you mixed with?
It’s the “what” that gives the game away. “What are you?” isn’t, “who are you?”
And that, says Sha’an Mouliert of St. Johnsbury, is what needs to change. Like other people of color, she identifies these remarks as “micro-aggressions.”
To jumpstart change, the longtime educator and activist participated in creating “Visible in Vermont,” an exhibit of photos of people of color. Each holds a whiteboard that offers examples of what’s come at them, or their own statement of who they are—or both. Now in its fourth year, “Visible in Vermont” has reached towns all around the state—and now it's coming to St. Johnsbury.
Photos shown Feb. 12-26 in the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum second-floor gallery will include portraits of people of color living and studying in the Northeast Kingdom. Locals will also be on a panel of five Caledonia County people of color: Gladys Chambers, Dr. Marjorie Ste. Marie, Sahra Ali, George Sales, and Geoffrey Sewake, who will discuss dealing with racism in their daily lives.
The photos and panel bring into focus the racism encountered not only by African Americans but also by Native Americans and people of color from countries around the world. Following the panel discussion Wednesday evening, Feb. 12, the opening night gathering will feature an audience discussion, with light refreshments provided.
Mouliert (pronounced mool-YAIR), committed to the practice of activism for racial equity in this “second-whitest state” in the nation, says “I’m excited about the work I’m doing around racial literacy, a healing practice. It’s a radical program, providing the opportunity to develop skills that allow us to communicate and to resolve issues, enhancing everyone’s efficacy.”
Racial literacy, she observed, “provides tools for a foundational understanding, grounded in cultural humility,” as taught in Howard Stevenson’s book, “Promoting Racial Literacy in Our Schools—Differences that Make a Difference.” Starting this month, Mouliert is offering six-session racial literacy training programs, like the one she led last year at NEK Leads, at locations in St. Johnsbury and Newport.
Throughout her three decades as an activist, Mouliert has won the respect of others dedicated to racial and social justice.
Michelle Fay of St. Johnsbury, who has worked with Mouliert on several projects over the past 10 years, strongly supports the focus of ‘Visible in Vermont’ on challenging “micro-aggressions,” such as “What are you?” remarks.
While any one remark may seem no big deal, “people must see what’s going on,” Fay said. “Micro-aggressions happen so often, they have a cumulative impact, making the people targeted feel that they are ‘other.’ We have to recognize that there is a clear project of cultural dominance going on here, and we have to believe people’s reports of their experiences.”
As members of the NEK Racial Justice Alliance, Fay recalled, she and Mouliert worked together in addressing issues around the display of the Confederate flag at the Caledonia County Fair.
“She was just very powerful,” Fay recalled, “in letting officials know the history of violence the flag stands for. This required an incredible amount of emotional labor for a person of color to do.”
And the effort succeeded, bringing about an end to that practice.
Another project of Mouliert’s, the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in the public schools, Fay added, is “critically important.” The coalition, she noted, was formed “to help pass legislation to create a process” to use in reviewing standards calling for equity, and also, to make the case that “representation and visibility matter” to students. “People need to see themselves represented in books,” Fay said. “People need to be seen!”
Seen—and heard. At the St. Johnsbury Community Reparative Justice Center, Director Susan Cherry, who has worked with Mouliert on many projects, said she appreciates Mouliert’s passion for bringing people into the conversation.
“We always have the need” working with clients at the Justice Center, Cherry said, “to have people understand how a violation of the law is sometimes racially motivated or affects people of color in the community. We try always to bring in those affected by racist graffiti, for instance. That makes for an intense, but very important conversation. It’s very personal—but if we don’t address race, then we’re not doing our job.”
Penny Patch, of Lyndonville, an activist for civil rights since the 1960s, has long-known Mouliert and her work in the Kingdom. She calls the “Visible in Vermont” project “a valuable initiative that allows so many other people of color to have a voice.”
The State of Vermont has always had people of color among its majority-white population. These minorities ranged from native Abenaki to African Americans, French, French-Indians, and Jews. The Abenaki, long aware of the hostility of Europeans who’d taken over their homeland by force, kept drums and other religious items hidden inside their homes, the better to “pass” in their communities.
“Passing” was a passion, Mouliert recalled, for her great-great-grandmother, a slave in Jamaica. Dark herself, this great-great-grandmother decided to have her children by an Englishman, so they might have lighter skin, would be supported by him, and could move up from field work to working inside the master’s house. She taught her own daughters to do the same, and the practice continued down the generations.
Mouliert’s grandmother passed for white. Hired as a “domestic” in a famous house at one of New York City’s most prestigious addresses, Sutton Place, her grandmother, she said, worked with Irving Berlin on plays, and moved in elite social circles. On reaching adulthood, her daughter—Mouliert’s mother—came out as a debutante. Once married, however, she succumbed with her husband to alcoholism. Mouliert earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and qualified to practice as a substance abuse counselor.
She also spent 11 years in a high-powered career, working as an assistant editor with Time, Inc., where she collaborated with a managing editor to produce the annual “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit edition. She left this position with the largest media corporation in New York City, to move to the Northeast Kingdom 37 years ago.
For her grandmother, she recalled, New York City had been “the land of opportunity,” a new world in which to build her life. Mouliert chose to do as her grandmother had done, and move into the unknown. She settled in Newport and Derby Line on the Canadian border. She set her sights on seeing Vermont, the first state in the U.S. to abolish slavery, and one of the whitest states in the nation, become, “a beacon for racial and social equity.”
Her marriage came apart, but Mouliert and her young son settled into life in Newport. Enrolled in preschool, her son was identified as having special needs. In elementary school, troublemaking, not special needs, became the focus of school personnel’s concern, and Mouliert received reports of incidents with other children occurring on the playground. Her son had been telling his mother the other children were scaring him, she said, and she recognized that racism might be an issue. Advocating for her son launched her into a life of activisism.
Without the support of another mother, Mouliert recalled, she might never have stuck with it. But she committed herself to action, and the African American Alliance became active in the NEK.
Then, Mouliert received a mailing from the school district about a student project that featured an African village, a slave ship, and a master-slave auction. She spoke out at Brighton School Board meetings about the racist character of the program, and the project was terminated. Although just one TV station covered the school board meetings, word spread she said, and to her surprise, more and more parents stepped forward to join the African American Alliance.
Today, a grandmother, the 71-year-old Mouliert continues to work with people and organizations, and to win recognition for her initiatives, including the 2015 Presidential Medal of Distinction from Lyndon State College (now Northern Vermont University). She serves on two advisory boards, one for the Root Social Justice Center of Brattleboro, and the other for the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools.
Reflecting on her activism, Mouliert said, “I have for 30 years sat at tables at conferences, and I just say people of color cannot benefit from my being at those tables.” Even well-intentioned people in the white majority, she believes, “lack the deep foundational understanding of racism that’s necessary,” to wrangle successfully with “internalized racism, which privileges white skin and presumes white dominance.”
Sixty years ago, in 1960, Vermont transplants—people living here who were born outside the state—were just one-quarter of the population. Today, they’re nearly half. And, according to Vermont’s 2010 census, minorities accounted for nearly 60 percent of its population growth in the previous decade. As the 2020 census gets underway, there’s a question Vermonters might consider: Could racial literacy initiatives create flourishing, resilient communities throughout Vermont during the new decade?