BRATTLEBORO — On one hand, Shanta Lee Gander was just another local Select Board member facing a three hour-plus meeting agenda.
On the other hand, she was making history.
Brattleboro is an increasingly multicultural town in the nation’s second-whitest state, with about 15 percent of its high schoolers — double the figure of Vermont’s total population — identifying as something other than white. Even so, the community held several public forums this past year about the fact that none of its 200 municipal government staffers represent a racial or ethnic minority.
That changed this month when Gander became the first black resident to serve on the Brattleboro Select Board.
“I think it’s an interesting follow-up to the conversations about inclusion and equity,” says Gander, who attended her first regular meeting Tuesday. “Even though I hate making things about color, it’s huge.”
Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity, agrees. He notes the five legislators of color now serving in Montpelier’s 180-member State House have been joined at the local level by a record number of peers including Gander, Burlington City Councilor Ali Dieng, Hartford Selectman Jameson Davis, Rutland Alderwoman Lisa Ryan and Winooski City Councilor Hal Colston.
“We’re at an all-time high,” Reed says of multicultural representation. “We see this as a positive sign that our democracy is beginning to greater reflect our population.”
The Brattleboro-based statewide partnership has encouraged Vermonters of color to engage through its annual Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future Conference and “Resolve to Get Involved!” program, which advertises opportunities ranging from speaking out at town meeting to running for public office.
The partnership also is promoting the Vermont African American Heritage Trail, which celebrates area historical figures from Alexander Twilight, the first black graduate of a United States college (Middlebury, 1823) to Grafton native Daisy Turner, the daughter of slaves who grew up to share her ancestors’ stories until her death in 1988 at age 104.
“The state has a long history of African Americans who have been part of democratic institutions to advance causes for the common good,” Reed says.
Gander knows. She’s set to portray Lucy Terry Prince, the nation’s first known black poet, in a program at Brooks Memorial Library on Wednesday, April 25. But the new selectwoman is careful to note her reason for running wasn’t about race, having already served on boards for everything from the Arts Council of Windham County to Brattleboro’s Women’s Freedom Center.
“I have a real passion for being involved,” Gander says. “It’s very important the town is well managed and we’re making key decisions that positively impact everyone who resides here.”
Reed concurs that people of color aren’t easily categorized. He points to state senators Francis Brooks, a Democrat, and Randy Brock, a Republican.
“The two of them are in politics for reasons absent of race,” Reed says. “Each one brings something different.”
Reed adds that Vermont peers of color also offer varied perspectives based on their disabilities or sexual orientations. But he does see one unifying factor in the current politically polarized climate.
“Donald Trump has really angered a lot of people of color who are insistent that Vermont can show another narrative,” Reed says. “There’s also a deep desire to move the state forward. Unless you’re at the table, it’s difficult to bring your voice to the decision-making process, whether it’s about health care or fiscal responsibility or education.”
The record numbers are small in one respect: Vermont classrooms are reporting increasingly diverse student bodies, but only two representatives of racial or ethnic minorities — Leon Johnson of North Bennington and Alexander Yin of Winooski — currently serve on area school boards.
The “Resolve to Get Involved!” program is aiming to help more peers join local and state boards and commissions.
“This is about people deciding it’s time to get involved in the political process beyond voting,” Reed says. “We fully expect them to inspire young Vermonters. That might be the broader story for the future.”
Gander, for her part, hopes that story is there’s no story.
“It’s beyond skin color,” she says. “How do we engage other voices? Youth? People who live in different socioeconomic levels? It’s not that I’m not conscious about being a black women, but I eventually want to come to a place where we’re looking at everyone simply for the sum of the skills they bring. That’s my goal.”