In late-August, Representative Kiah Morris, a friend from Bennington, announced she was withdrawing from her re-election bid. She had recently won her district's Democratic nomination for state representative and faced no opposition. While Kiah didn’t speak to it in her formal announcement at the time, in the days since she has been clear about the racism, vitriol, and concerns for the safety of her family that drove her decision.
Kiah is a young mother and the only African-American woman serving in the State House. We were both members of the class elected to the legislature in 2014 and served together on the Health Care Committee. I knew that Kiah and her family had been the target of racist harassment on social media, their home had been vandalized, she had been threatened locally by a perpetrator placed under a restraining order. Kiah’s lovely young son, a pre-schooler we saw frequently in the State House during her first term, was impacted. How couldn’t he be? Kiah also mentioned to me that she’d been pulled over by law enforcement on various trips to Montpelier. (In the tens of thousands of miles I’ve driven to and from Montpelier, the number of times I’ve been pulled over by the police: zero.)
In Vermont we like to think of ourselves as being inclusive and welcoming of diversity. I know I certainly do. I’m proud of living in a state with a long history of social justice and civil rights leadership – we were the first state to ban* slavery, establish civil unions, legislatively ensure marriage equality. We like to think that the cancers of bigotry and racism exist elsewhere. Down south. Along the border. With wacko online extremists. Somewhere else, but not here.
But of course racism exists here.
If you drive while black in Vermont you are four times more likely to be searched than if you are white, even though white drivers are more likely to be found with illicit drugs during traffic stops. Vermont leads the nation in the rate of incarcerating African Americans, with one out of fourteen African American adult males incarcerated. If you are a person of color you are two times as likely to have a “voluntary separation” from work and three times more likely than white employees to be terminated. We have a problem in Vermont.
Kiah is a leader in driving Vermont forward on social justice issues. As Rep. Kevin “Coach” Christie wrote in a note to fellow legislators after Kiah made her announcement, “Young black mother, legislator, champion of social, racial, and criminal justice reform – falls victim to the exact hate, bigotry, and racism that she fights against, for all Vermonters every day.” Coach went on to challenge his fellow legislators, but really all of us, asking, have “we – friends colleagues, and Vermonters – not only failed her, but all of the other Vermonters who have been subjected to this level of hate in our State?”
I don’t need to ask myself whether I failed Kiah – I did. While I knew about some of the harassment Kiah had been subjected to, I didn’t understand the pervasiveness of the threats to her and her family. I spoke about it with Kiah only after she made her announcement and I lost her as a colleague.
I asked her how I can do better and she offered two words of encouragement: courageous conversations. Don't be afraid to jump in, she told me. The fact that conversations on race can be messy and uncomfortable and scary isn’t an excuse not to have them.
There has always been an appeal to dealing with bigotry and hate speech by ignoring it. Don't fan the flames, the thinking goes. Don’t give extremists a soapbox to stand on. This tack is particularly ineffective in a world where racists and bigots are feeling empowered and emboldened, their behavior normalized by the rhetoric from our own president. Most sadly, ignoring racism and bigotry can leave the target feeling alone and unsupported.
Kiah supported me. She was the one who, when both of us had an impossible number of things to do one afternoon at the State House, made sure I joined her at a Black Lives Matter meeting. Kiah made sure I was among the legislators who attended Rep. Diana Gonzalez' implicit bias training this past year. Kiah pressed the conversation forward, raised our awareness, and we will be diminished as a state by her absence from the State House next year.
There is nothing good about losing an excellent legislator like Kiah Morris. She has given me a better understanding of the line between silence and complicity, and the inspiration to jump into the courageous conversations.
* Chapter 1, Article 1 of the Vermont Constitution allows a man under the age of 21 and a woman under the age of 18 to be bound as "servant, slave, or apprentice." Jim and I were sponsors of House Resolution 25 this year which calls upon the Vermont Senate in 2019 to amend our Constitution to remove this language. An amendment of Vermont's Constitution must originate in the Vermont Senate.
Back in 2016, I heard some folks question whether Patrick Leahy should be running for re-election to the U.S. Senate considering he had just turned 76 years old. This past week he made me proud and thankful to have him in that seat. And I'm grateful he is going to be there for the other Supreme Court confirmation hearings to roll through the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next four years. Here's what he had to say about the Kavanaugh nomination on Friday.
August 14th, Primary Election Day in front of Tracy Hall. Perrin Milliken was one of many first-time voters to come to the polls that day. Turnout was much higher than expected in the primary and is anticipated to be very high for the mid-term election in November.
Early voting has begun. You can vote anytime your Town Clerk's office is open between now and November 6th.
On September 12th, the Norwich Lions dedicated the flag pole at the new public safety building to James Southworth, one of the Lions' founding members 64 years ago. Steve Flanders, holding the cue cards for the chorus, led us all in a rendition of America the Beautiful.
September 25th Wally and Barbara Smith organized a celebration of Strafford's Edible Pocket Park. The award-winning park is spectacular and it was a beautiful fall day for a community event.
South Strafford's Rosie Kerr gave me, Jim, and a motley crew a ride in her antique Dodge pick-up for the Post Mills' Labor Day parade.