‘Watch out for that word equity’: Critical race theory debate reaches Rutland

Audience members listen to critiques of Critical Race Theory during a gathering held by Vermonters for Vermont in Rutland on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

RUTLAND — A national controversy about naming systemic racism in schools has made its way to Rutland. 

The town hall-style meeting, held at the Vermont State Fairgrounds on Wednesday night, featured six speakers, most of whom denounced “critical race theory,” which acknowledges the sprawling existence of racism in the country’s institutions. Rhetoric on Wednesday aligned with a recent nationwide push among conservative activists to ban conversations about racism from local schools.

“We have trusted that the public schools would not insert themselves into our families’ morals and beliefs,” Elizabeth Cady, a member of the Essex-Westford school board, told the crowd of around 70. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case these days. Our public schools are telling us that they know better how to tell our children what’s right and what’s wrong.”

In the past year, spurred by racial justice demonstrations across the country that illuminated deeply rooted barriers for people of color, many educators have adopted curricula that address racism and its impact on American systems over time. Vermont’s Act 1, signed into law in 2019, also identified a need to address racism in public schools and established a working group to carry out that task.

Educators in Vermont — including those who encourage conversations about politics, equity and identity in the classroom — say they are not explicitly or intentionally teaching critical race theory. 

Cady, along with the other speakers — Rutland City school board member Tricia O’Connor; state Rep. Art Peterson, R-Clarendon; conservative activists John Klar, Todd Fillmore and Ellie Martin; and organizer Gregory Thayer — characterized Act 1 as a dangerous policy. 

Peterson, a freshman legislator, read aloud from Act 1, eliciting gasps from the audience. A description of white privilege, in particular, drew laughs.

Gregory Thayer critiques Critical Race Theory during a gathering held by Vermonters for Vermont in Rutland on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Cady, who recently spoke at an event in Essex, said parents from around Vermont have emailed her to ask what kind of behavior they should be looking out for in their local schools. Her response: Be concerned if your school has hired a director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

She told the crowd that she accepts the need for diversity and inclusion — the acts of welcoming people with various identities to Vermont. The word “equity,” she said, is “where things start being a little bit sticky.”

Equity, she said, “seeks to divide people by race to want the same outcome for each group, often using racial discrimination to get it.”

Directors of diversity, equity and inclusion programs are often hired to address instances of racism within schools. The Milken Institute for Public Health at George Washington University clarifies the difference between equality and equity: “Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities,” it said. “Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.”  

Fillmore, referring to an equity policy recently debated by the Essex-Westford school board, urged the crowd to “watch out for that word equity,” which he criticized as requiring “an unequal distribution of resources and services” based on race. 

He also promoted “colorblindness,” the idea that members of society should ignore the color of a person’s skin. Racial justice advocates have long said colorblindness ignores ongoing racial disparities.

Martin, who organized a Jan. 6 bus trip to Washington, D.C., to attend pro-Trump events that devolved into deadly riots, equated critical race theory with communism.  

“Critical race theory and critical thinking, and all that stuff, that's all dividing us,” she said. “They’re all part of communist tactics to separate us and divide us and get us to hate one another.”

Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour event, speakers urged people to take action against local school boards where curricula include conversations about racism.

John Klar critiques Critical Race Theory during a gathering held by Vermonters for Vermont in Rutland on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘Stroking the fears’

Sarika Tandon and Amanda Garces, members of the Education Justice Coalition of Vermont, which urged passage of Act 1, told VTDigger while the coalition generally supports critical race theory, conversations about it are not common in K-12 education. 

“Our emphasis is on curriculum that is culturally sustaining for all students, and that represents communities and identities that have been invisiblized or marginalized due to deep-seated dynamics of oppression,” they said in an email. 

Tandon and Garces said their group is confident that “Vermonters will choose values of love, justice and equity for all of our children in this conversation,” and cited broad support for Act 1 among state legislators. 

The pair said the timing of the attack on critical race theory comes after systemic racism has, for the first time, become widely acknowledged in the national discourse. 

“This is a cycle we have seen repeat itself whenever civil rights gains have been made,” they said.

Asma Elhuli, who lives in the Upper Valley, is also a member of the Education Justice Coalition and is the movement politics director for the advocacy group Rights and Democracy in New Hampshire. 

She’s been following a bill moving through New Hampshire’s Legislature that would prohibit “the dissemination of certain divisive concepts related to sex and race in state contracts, grants and training programs.” She said she wouldn’t be surprised if other state legislatures took up the matter.

“I think these conversations are really scary because they touch on things we aren't talking about,” she said. “We all carry implicit bias, and what they're doing is stroking the fears of people who haven't investigated or analyzed their biases.”

What’s going on in schools?

Even after a recent event in Essex — similar to Wednesday’s in Rutland in its audience size and message — the Essex-Westford school board passed a district-wide equity policy. Cady was the only board member to vote no.

Speakers Wednesday night said they believe conversations about race divide students. But educators, and those pushing for more conversations about equity in public schools, say that the changes they propose will uplift all students.

Elijah Hawkes, principal of Randolph Union High School, urges teachers to intentionally center discussions about politics and racism in the classroom. He recently wrote a book titled, “School for the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work.”

“One of the first things that I say to new teachers who joined the school is, we want and expect you to do work in the classroom that intersects with personal identity, and that intersects with politics and contemporary challenges. We've got your back if you're going to do that work and do it well.”

Elizabeth Cady, a member of the Essex Westford School District Board, critiques Critical Race Theory during a gathering held by Vermonters for Vermont in Rutland on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Hawkes said he’s spent many hours talking to parents who have strong reactions to the teaching style he encourages. To him, it’s important that parents “have a sense that the educators are there out of care for their child — their child and every other child.” 

“There's nothing going on here that intends to shame your child or to make your child feel bad about who they are or what they think,” he said. “This is an educational institution where we're going to approach the work with a mix of personal stories, historical facts and reliable resources, as part of our job as an academic institution.” 

Rob Bliss, assistant superintendent of Rutland City Public Schools — a district currently in the heat of an ongoing mascot debate that has featured many conversations about racism — said his priority is making sure all students feel included. 

“We teach understanding and empathy, and we build communities in our classrooms when the kids are young,” he said. “We teach respect and how to voice your opinion respectfully, and how to honor your classmates and the people in our community, and how to be an ally, when somebody needs a friend.”

As kids grow older, they learn more about history, and he said those lessons don’t exclude conversations about racism. This year, a middle school project in Rutland focused on student identity, Bliss said. 

“That isn't necessarily about race. It's about who I am as a person,” he said. “But depending on how our students might identify themselves, they might say, ‘This is important to me.’ And if they do, we honor it.”

“For us, the issue is, we work with our students and for our students, and that's it,” he said. 

Clarification: This article has been clarified to show that, while Todd Fillmore was among the speakers criticizing Act 1, he did not extend that criticism to critical race theory.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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