CASTLETON — Vermont’s first college chapter of the NAACP is ready for action.
In June, Castleton University’s chapter of the national civil rights organization received official approval, making it one of more than 600 youth, high school and college chapters in the country.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP, which has 2,200 chapters nationally, seeks to eliminate race-based discrimination and address issues of racial, political, educational, social and economic inequality.
Not unlike the founding of the organization itself, Castleton’s chapter was born out of a moment of racial conflict.
Last fall, a CU student sent a series of racist emails to a Black student in response to the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag on campus.
In the wake of the incident, then-senior Raynolds Awusi, along with Nadia Cox and Tajae Edwards, began work to establish an NAACP chapter on campus.
Cox and Edwards, both seniors, now serve as the chapter’s co-presidents.
Edwards, a business major who transferred to CU last year from Hudson Valley Community College, is passionate about the work the chapter is doing.
“As soon as I transferred, and I heard of some of the incidents that happened … I decided to join as quickly as possible,” he said.
Edwards said much of the work he sees the chapter focusing on is education and raising awareness of issues in order to prevent future incidents from happening.
“Prevention is better than a cure,” he said. “A lot of it comes around to educating each other on acceptance.”
Edwards said he has seen much support for racial equality among his fellow students, especially last year when news of the racist emails circulated on campus.
“A lot of students, no matter what their race was … they wanted everyone to see that this is wrong,” he said.
Edwards said the incident motivated students to join the chapter.
“They were passionate in the meetings, hearing their ideas and having these discussions — a lot of tough discussions that a lot of people shy away from. So I think we have a good community here, for the most part,” he said.
The CU chapter currently boasts about 30 members — just more than the minimum requirement of 25 for official recognition.
Cox said retention of old members and recruitment of new ones is a priority this semester. Chapter leaders attended a recent club and activities fair and have been actively connecting with members of like-minded groups on campus, such as the social justice and multicultural clubs.
She stressed that the NAACP isn’t just for people of color, pointing out that it was founded by Black and white civil rights advocates.
Cox, a business marketing major who transferred to CU from the Community College of Vermont two years ago, characterized CU students as welcoming. She noted, however, that more work needs to be done to better engage faculty, staff and administrators.
“I think more knowledge needs to come into play, especially when it comes to faculty and staff,” she said. “I feel like they want to be more inclusive and be more open about it, but they’re hesitant.”
She acknowledged that the small population of students of color on campus creates a degree of discomfort among some faculty and staff who are unsure how to connect with those students.
Cox recommended trainings and other opportunities for faculty and staff to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion, noting they are topics that students are already thinking about and bringing up in classes.
“Faculty and staff members, and even administration, they need to just be more open and … just gain knowledge on it,” she said.
Another issue raised by Cox and Edwards is what they allege is the profiling of Black male students by local law enforcement.
“There have been multiple incidents of students of color, specifically males, that are getting pulled over or followed for just unnecessary reasons,” Cox said, adding that she feels the administration hasn’t done enough to address it.
As the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS) embarks on a consolidation process in the coming years that will bring CU, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College under one administrative umbrella, Cox is hopeful the CU’s chapter will be able to leverage some of that momentum to expand the NAACP’s reach across the state.
“I’m hoping more exposure of our chapter will influence other colleges to do the same thing,” she said.
In the meantime, Cox said the chapter is raising awareness around racial issues through events and activities that directly engage the CU community.
One such event is a panel discussion, scheduled for Sept. 23, led by students of color from throughout the state college system.
The event, which is being co-organized by the Rutland chapter of the NAACP, will give students of color an opportunity to share their perspective of going to college in a predominantly white state like Vermont.
Mia Schultz, executive director of the Rutland chapter of the NAACP, said she and other members are excited to collaborate with the new chapter.
“We look forward to teaming up with this motivated chapter in many initiatives in the future,” she stated.
Another goal, Cox said, is receiving official recognition from the Vermont Legislature as the state’s first collegiate chapter of the NAACP. (Cox noted that Middlebury College previously had one, but it was short lived.)
Cox said the work being done at CU and the other three NAACP chapters around the state is happening at a crucial time when Vermont’s demographics are changing.
“Yes, this is a predominantly white state, but diversity is changing all across the country and Vermont is starting to change,” she said. “This is starting to be a home for young people, people of other races, cultures, sexual orientations — where they want to grow a family. … People need to start raising awareness and welcoming that it’s becoming more of a prominent issue, especially in Vermont.”