MONTPELIER — In response to a rise in hate crimes in Vermont, nearly 60 organizations in the state have signed a statement promoting inclusion and respect with a call to action for change in their communities.
It follows a report by the FBI last month that showed there were 34 reported incidents in the state in 2017 compared with 25 incidents in 2016.
Although not included in the 2017 statistics, the most recent high-profile case occurred earlier this year when Rep. Kiah Morris, a Bennington Democrat, was the target of online racial comments and threats to her safety. She withdrew her candidacy for re-election just 10 days after winning the Democratic nomination for a third term. The attorney general is investigating the allegations of racial threats against her.
The hate crime statistics published by the FBI were voluntarily reported by local law enforcement. In Vermont, 90 agencies participated and 17 submitted incident reports in 2017. Law enforcement officials have noted there may be many other incidents that go unreported.
Nationally, the FBI data shows that the number of reported hate crimes went up for the third year in a row, with a rise in threats and violence against people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews and political groups.
Arts and cultural leaders in Vermont have since banded together in opposition to hate crimes.
“The evidence of escalating hatred and bigotry is right here in Vermont. There are dozens of examples from Burlington to Brattleboro, St. Johnsbury to Bennington. As cultural leaders, we stand against hate and violence, and we will take action,” reads the statement from Vermont arts and cultural organizations through the Vermont Humanities Council. “In 2019, each of our organizations will undertake programming that advances dialogue and healing in our communities. We invite other cultural organizations across the state to join us to reject bigotry, work for a kinder and more thoughtful Vermont, and build creative, healthy, welcoming communities for all.”
Organizations that signed the statement will be invited to nominate representatives to join a planning committee for a meeting in January. The meeting will be one of a series of coalition-building meetings across the state by Vermont’s arts and culture leaders.
Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council, said it was important for people to stand together against hate speech and acts of violence.
“The most important thing I can say from the perspective of the arts council is that at the heart of any effort toward inclusion is empathy and understanding of perspectives outside our own, and what does that better than the arts?” Mittelman said. “If you read a novel or see a play or watch a dance performance, see a film or touch a sculpture, that somehow transports you into the life and experience of somebody whose world is completely different to yours.”
Mittelman said the Vermont Arts Council was looking at fresh ways to combat hate speech and violence.
“We’re taking a look at our grant programs through the lens of equity, diversity and inclusion, and so there may be some shifts in our investment,” Mittelman said. “We’re also going to be using our arts letter, ArtMail, and we have a blog.
“One of the projects we’re implementing as part of these action steps for change is a bi-monthly feature in the newsletter called, ‘I am a Vermont Artist.’ The goal is to include artists of color, artists of different abilities, new Americans, artists from the LGBT community, where we’re really interested in broadening the definition of who is an artist in Vermont,” she added.
At Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, president Tom Greene said the college had already been working to create a diverse culture among students, faculty and staff and to promote inclusive programs and policies.
“I think the statement is an acknowledgement that Vermont is not immune to racism and bigotry and that we as cultural leaders in the state have a vital role in the state, both in terms of our soapbox but also in terms of what we do with our institutions,” Greene said. “A place like VCFA brings a lot of diversity into Montpelier that would not be here otherwise.
“It’s important for us that people feel comfortable here, our students and our faculty, and diversity is one of our highest priorities because we think people learn better in diverse environments. Art is ultimately about telling stories, regardless of what medium they’re working in. Visual artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians are all fundamentally storytellers and the more you hear from diverse and marginalized voices, the stronger the larger narrative is,” Greene said.