Living color: Educator sees Vt. through eyes of minorities
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | January 20,2013
Jeff Pohl-Moore Photo
Tabitha Pohl-Moore, pictured with her 5-year-old son, Brynn, is advocating for more public awareness of the challenges faced by Vermont’s minorities.
As a Vermonter of color, Tabitha Pohl-Moore has mixed emotions about the historic second inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president — coming not only on Martin Luther King Day, but also the 150th anniversary month of the Emancipation Proclamation and 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington.
“On one hand, I’m glad because, for a moment, I can celebrate how far we have come,” the 35-year-old says. “But that’s what it is — a moment. Not that I’m negative, but I also worry that it gives people a false sense we’ve arrived.”
Pohl-Moore knows otherwise. Sure, her white mother’s Green Mountain roots go back six generations.
“My grandfather died last February in the house where he was born in 1914 — you don’t get much more Vermont than that.”
But the coffee-with-cream complexion she inherited from her black father makes some people question if she’s truly a descendent of what for decades has been the country’s whitest state.
“As young as watching ‘Sesame Street,’ I knew I was different. Cookie Monster tells you one of these things is not like the other, and you start looking at yourself and other people.”
Other people who stare back.
“In kindergarten and elementary school, kids would come up and touch my face and hair. Race has always been a part of my formal education.”
Today the wife and mother works as a counselor at her alma mater, Mill River Union High School in Clarendon. Her native state prides itself on being the first to outlaw slavery and grant same-sex unions. But, whether locally or on the road as a cheerleading coach, she still sees human rights obstacles to overcome.
“Every once in a while I’ll pull a student of color aside and say, ‘What’s it like at your school?’ And there’s a knowing, a connection, a ‘you know what it’s like.’ And they don’t have to say anything beyond that.”
But most of Vermont’s 94.2 percent Caucasian population (a tenth of a point lower than Maine, now the nation’s whitest state) lacks firsthand experience with racial diversity or discrimination. That’s why the educator is speaking out.
‘Not the same’
Back three decades ago when Pohl-Moore began school in the central Vermont town of Rochester — current population 1,139 — she and her older brother, Bill, were the only students of color.
“You want to fit in,” she recalls, “yet when people are saying your hair feels weird, you know you’re not the same. They weren’t mean, they were curious — how could they know what those innocent experiences would mean for me? Young people are on this quest for identity, to discover who they are in relationship to others. And when nobody looks like you, there’s nobody to reflect you or your experience. Quoting poet Adrienne Rich, it’s like you’re looking into a mirror and you see nothing.”
After her family moved to Rutland County in search of more racial diversity, Pohl-Moore transferred to Mill River in eighth grade. Joining a class of more than 120 budding teens, she was no longer a one-person minority. Instead, “you could name us on one hand.”
Enough Vermont students face physical, verbal or cyber threats because of perceived differences that the state recently established a Harassment, Hazing and Bullying Prevention Advisory Council to explore solutions.
Growing up, Pohl-Moore didn’t recall any overt shouts or shoving from classmates and received a good word and helping hand from many adults. Take the teacher who encouraged her to pursue track and field. Then again, was it because she tried the long jump — or because she was the same color as most of the sport’s female Olympians?
“I had no aptitude for that, so that’s when I started to wonder how my relationships were being affected by race.”
She knows such situations aren’t as simple as black and white. People can simultaneously be concerned yet clueless how they can make someone feel different. Many of her classmates only saw people of color through media extremes — either an alarming composite sketch on the evening news or the affluent characters of “The Cosby Show.”
“I got called Rudy a lot,” she says, referring to one of the children on the latter telecast, “and then, when I got older, I became Vanessa. That’s how people related to me around race because they didn’t know what else to do.”
Graduating high school in 1996, the honor roll student relocated to upstate New York to study counseling at Wells College and Syracuse University and work with clients in poverty and in prisons. She became the first African-American female administrator in the nearly century-old Onondaga County Department of Probation. Then, burning out after one too many cases, “I decided I needed to go back to my roots.”
The Mill River alumnus who vowed never to return came back as a counselor in 2009.
“I noticed there were a few Latino students, more Asian students, a few more faces of color, and some students are beginning to embrace their rural heritage. You see camouflage on purses! I think access to media has really helped young people feel a little more pride in who they are. It’s not about fitting in or being tolerated like it was when I was growing up, it’s about individual identity.
Consider a New York Times story this month headlined “Generation LGBTQIA” (That’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, ally/asexual — just the start of a long list of terms a growing number of students are adopting).
“I feel more hopeful that some are talking about the idea that it’s chic to be unique. At the same time, many students of color are saying the same things that I used to say: ‘I wish we’d talk about it, I wish we’d do more.’ I still see the undertones of ‘you’re different — and that’s not good.’”
Pohl-Moore cites the “n-word.”
“I’ll hear students using it in the hallway,” she says matter-of-factly. “The latest thing is it’s cool to not be politically correct. Students think it’s OK to wear the Confederate rebel flag. Ask them what they think it means and they say, ‘it’s just that you’re proud of being country, or a redneck.”
Those who know history see much more. The state was the first to outlaw slavery, in 1777, and enroll and graduate a black college student, in 1823, who became the first African-American elected as a legislator, in 1836. But the Ku Klux Klan boasted Green Mountain membership as late as the 1920s, and University of Vermont students wore blackface and kinky wigs during an annual “Kake Walk” dance until 1969.
“It’s really easy for people to disconnect from history,” Pohl-Moore says. “We can’t forget.”
And so she educates — sometimes without saying anything at all.
“Just being here, just students seeing me — at least there’s somebody tangible in the building.”
Her office features posters showing a rainbow of humanity and a stockpile of related multimedia materials.
“I want us to get that racism is still going on today,” Lee Mun Wah, maker of one of her library’s videos, says in an Oprah Winfrey segment. “We’ve got to stop to hear the anguish and the pain that goes with that. And each of us individually has to do something about it in our neighborhoods, in our schools and in our institutions.”
Pohl-Moore starts by inviting visitors to relax in “Big Red,” her overstuffed chair where one student frightfully recalled a trip to Boston.
“I was so scared,” the teenager said. “There were black people everywhere.”
“You realize,” the counselor replied, “that you’re telling this to a black person?”
“You’re different,” the teenager said. “They had darker skin.”
Such conversations only strengthen Pohl-Moore’s desire for more diversity education. She shares a letter she wrote as an 18-year-old asking the Mill River School Board to “give the students and faculty a chance to learn about the importance of multiculturality” — not just for the sake of minorities, but for all students who need to better understand the world to enter and experience it fully.
“I want students to make the right choice because it’s the right choice, not because I’m a teacher and I said so,” the educator says today. “Most people can think of a time when they have felt unheard. They can use that experience to drive curiosity about how we relate with others.
“That’s the question I think we all need to ask more, but I worry in Vermont we aren’t going to make significant progress until something really bad happens. It’s unfortunate, but our society is reactive. How many more Newtowns are there going to have to be? That’s the only time we give pause and pay attention.”
President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Monday offers another moment.
“Is it a turning point? My answer is no — it’s a starting point. One person doesn’t shatter the whole glass ceiling, they make a dent in it. In order for us to change the paradigm, in order for us to really get to a place where we’re making significant changes, it can’t just be one sensational person.”
Instead, she looks to all her students, as well as her three young children her supportive husband cares for back home. She acknowledges the state’s current winter-white landscape can seem cold. But she has reason to dig in and warm the seeds of spring.
“Some days I feel starved for connection with people who reflect me, and I see my own kids searching for identity, beginning that ‘who am I?’ But I know that if I don’t stay here, if I don’t do this work, who’s going to? If Vermont can do something as huge as changing law on same-sex marriage, we also have the ability to lead on race.”
On the trail:
A new Vermont African-American Heritage Trail features 10 historic sites, including a Lincoln family home and one of New England’s best documented underground railroad sites.
“This trail anchors the stories of African-descended Vermonters to our landscape and, as such, does a great service in helping to change the history of our state from a predominately white story to what it has always been from the beginning, a multicultural endeavor,” says Elise Guyette, author of “Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790-1890.”
For more info, visit www.vermontvacation.com/africanamericanheritagetrail.