A rally at Vermont State Fairgrounds on Wednesday night addressed the issue of “critical race theory.”

A crowd of around 60 people gathered to hear a slate of speakers discuss their experiences with CRT, which they claim is being taught in Vermont public schools.

The event was organized and facilitated by Gregory Thayer, of Vermonters for Vermont (V4V).

According to a press release, V4V was started in 2018 “to educate all Vermonters on the dangers of the Left’s public policy agenda.”

Thayer welcomed the crowd with his assessment of CRT.

“Critical race theory is just that: a theory,” he said. “They tell us that you’re either oppressed or an oppressor based on your skin color. As a white male, I’m considered inherently racist. I’m not racist.”

Developed in the 1970s by legal scholars, CRT posits that racism is embedded within systems, institutions and social structures.

CRT was injected into national consciousness last summer when activist and documentarian Christopher Rufo appeared on Fox News Channel, claiming that CRT trainings being held at some government agencies were an “existential threat to the United States” and that government bureaucracy was being “weaponized against core, traditional American values.”

Shortly thereafter, then-President Donald Trump called CRT “toxic propaganda” and claimed it was “being forced into our children’s schools.”

In September, he signed an executive order barring federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity trainings.

President Joe Biden rescinded that order soon after taking office.

Since then, Republican lawmakers in more than a dozen states — including Oklahoma, Florida and New Hampshire — have either proposed or passed bills putting limitations on the discussion of race or outright banning the teaching of CRT.

Elizabeth Cady, a newly elected member of the Essex-Westford School Board, was the first to speak Wednesday.

Cady has been critical of her district’s efforts to adopt an equity policy, which the EWSD board approved by a vote of 8-1 on Tuesday. Cady cast the sole “no” vote.

“We have trusted that the public schools would not insert themselves into our families, morals and beliefs. 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,” she said.

“If your school has recently instituted a program or hired the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, then you should be concerned,” she said, asserting that “equity seeks to divide people by race” and is, therefore, a racist concept.

“If you do not support critical race theory, that does not make you a racist. In fact, it makes you extremely anti-racist, because we don’t believe in dividing our children by the color of their skin,” said Cady.

Tricia O’Connor, a newly elected Rutland City School Board commissioner, spoke next to express her hope that the forum would be a catalyst for a broader community discussion about CRT.

O’Connor won her seat on the board in March as part of a slate of candidates who favored reinstating the Rutland City Public Schools “Raider” name and arrowhead logo. The board retired the name and logo last year, deeming it offensive and hurtful to Indigenous peoples.

On the School Board, O’Connor has voiced skepticism that racism has been an issue in city schools and has taken issue with district equity policies, suggesting that they are too focused on race.

On Wednesday, she argued that teaching CRT limits students’ ability to succeed.

“I am a big believer in, kids will live up or they will live down to your expectations,” she said. “Putting these children … pigeon-holing them in a box that they are victims, we’re not doing them a favor. These children need to be told, ‘We believe in you.’”

“We need to just stop being silent. This cannot keep going on because if it does, I don’t want to be in this current world. I want to be in a world where we’re supporting people,” she said.

Speaker Todd Fillmore presented an account of the history of CRT that alleged it teaches racism.

He advocated for policies that promote colorblindness instead.

“We’re all individuals; we have strengths, we have weaknesses and none of that has anything to do with the color of skin,” he said.

Fillmore, who is the custodial grandfather of a child in the Mill River Unified Union School District, is the founder of SchoolHawk, a group, which according to the description of its private Facebook Group, is working to “defend students’ rights to a public education free of political indoctrination.”

He further alleged that CRT proponents “openly seek to undermine their constitutional order with a system of self-governance.”

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Klar spoke about how CRT is an attack on “the liberal ideas of meritocracy and equality and egalitarianism.”

Klar, who now runs the conservative-leaning nonprofit Vermont Liberty Network, has rejected the notion that systemic racism exists in Vermont and has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In his remarks Wednesday, he repeatedly invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr., to characterize CRT as racist, comparing it to Nazism and the eugenics movement.

“CRT is DOA. The moment we drag this vicious, vile, hateful, noxious vampire out in the street and let the sun hit it, the sooner it shrivels up and goes away,” he said to cheers.

Rep. Arthur Peterson, R-Rutland-2, spoke about recent bills related to equity introduced and passed in the State House that he found problematic.

Last summer, Peterson was vocal opponent of MRUUSD’s efforts to display Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ Pride flags on school grounds.

At the time, the Herald reported he characterized flying the Pride flag as “perverse,” stating that it “sexualizes our kids’ education.”

He went on to state that the BLM flag “is a symbol of an organization with Marxist roots” that is “continually involved with violence,” and compared it to the Nazi flag.

Peterson later modified his position on the Pride flag to the Herald, saying he doesn’t “disapprove of anyone’s lifestyle.”

He also said his BLM-Nazi flag comparison “might have been a little harsh characterization on my part.”

On Wednesday, Peterson took aim at Act 1 of 2019, which created the Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group that has been charged with reviewing and recommending “standards to recognize fully the history, contributions and perspectives of ethnic groups and social groups.”

Peterson stated without elaboration that when the working group delivers its report, which is due later this month, “things will occur in the schools.”

He also referenced the state’s Social Equity Caucus, warning that the group has “support in a lot of high places” and calling it something he’s worried about.

“I think people want to treat people right,” he said. “You try to be fair and good to people, but this stuff just gets thrown in your face so much that it’s tough to hear.”

Ellie Martin, a member of the Essex Republican Town Committee, closed the evening, offering her thoughts on a variety of topics, including cancel culture, the COVID-19 vaccine and mask-wearing mandates.

Martin was the co-organizer of a bus trip to a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, after which a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Thayer was also part of the group of about 50 Vermonters who accompanied Martin on the trip.

No Vermonters were charged in connection with the riot.

During a brief question and answer session, the panel was asked how they would address economic disparities that exist between different races in America without referencing CRT.

Fillmore posited that economic disparities are not a result of race; rather, a result of the “dissolution of the traditional nuclear family.”

“We’re raising an entire nation of fatherless children,” he said, claiming that sociologists agree the “best circumstances” for raising a family are “mother, father, child.”

“As soon as you deviate from that norm, things start to go awry,” he said.

The evening closed with an emotional account from a woman in the audience who shared her story of fleeing a communist regime in Nicaragua to give her sons a better life in the United States.

She said she would “not stand for” CRT being taught in schools, explaining that she teaches her children to “treat people according to what comes out of their mouth, not because of the color of their skin.”

“My American dream is to see Dominic and Dante become somebody, to have a good education (and) go to any school,” she said.

Conflating terms

Despite the speakers’ claims Wednesday, local educators assert that CRT — which they argue is a different concept than equity — is not being taught in local schools.

In an email, Jodie Stewart-Ruck, principal of Shrewsbury Mountain School and equity coordinator for MRUUSD, stated “CRT is not being taught in Mill River schools.”

“Equity in schools is a focus on making sure that all of our students have what they need to feel respected and represented and to be successful in our system,” she wrote. “It does mean looking at our structures and systems and seeing what we can do to better serve all of our kids.”

She added that equity work is also about “increasing the representation of historically marginalized groups through a transformative lens — a transformative lens means focusing on stories of success and accomplishment.”

Nonetheless, Rufo, who has emerged as a leading voice in the current anti-CRT movement, has conflated CRT with the equity work many school are engaged in.

According to a story published in The New Republic on June 8, Rufo has provided feedback on nearly a dozen of the CRT bills moving through state legislatures.

Rufo’s rhetoric was also echoed by speakers Wednesday night.

In a YouTube video explaining CRT, Rufo claims the concept is deployed under various euphemisms, including “equity,” “social justice,” “diversity and inclusion,” and “culturally responsive teaching.”

He goes on to define equity as seeking “to divide the world into competing racial groups and ensure race-based equality of outcomes, endorsing active racial discrimination to get there.”

Rob Bliss, assistant superintendent of Rutland City Public Schools, also confirmed that CRT is not being taught in city schools.

Bliss said the first step in the district’s equity work was to develop a definition of the term that makes it clear it encompasses more than race.

“In the absence of some clear, combined understanding of what (equity) means, people could, in fact, take it and run in any direction they wanted,” he said.

Bliss said RCPS defines equity as, “Increasing the possibility of success for all, interrupting systemic practices that negatively impact students based on who they are, providing equal access for all, and cultivating every student.”

A student-focused definition of equity, reads, “Everyone gets what they need to become who they are self-determined to be, making sure nothing is in the way of any student growing to become the talented and wonderful humans they are.”

“As a school district … we are an inclusive institution,” Bliss said. “Anybody who walks in our doors, we’re going to nurture them and educate them. And we have to find ways to make sure that whatever system we have isn’t created to stand in people’s way.”

Finding common ground

Madison Akin is a community member who has been engaged in equity work for many years. Akin teaches a class at Castleton University that helps people learn how to engage in productive conversations about race, equity and inclusion.

Akin called the current conversation about CRT happening on the political right “spin.”

“This conversation is only about race when somebody wants to make it about race. It’s really about respect for ourselves and for all of our community members,” she said.

However, Akin believes that having an honest conversation about the underlying issues surrounding CRT is necessary.

“This is about values and identity. And I don’t think we grow until we look at some core issues that we have, as a culture, as a community, as a nation,” she said.

Akin added it’s also an “opportunity for students to engage in meaningful civics lessons.”

“They’re watching the adults and they’re watching how they behave. They’re seeing the power in voting, they’re seeing persuasive arguments, they’re seeing what inclusion brings and what diversity brings.”

She said good engagement with those who have differing opinions on equity requires “coming to the table with a level of respect” — the same respect one would employ when doing equity work.

Stewart-Ruck said her district’s commitment is to serve all students in the best way possible, explaining that an increased focus on equity helps students be better citizens and teaches “compassion, empathy and appreciation.”

“The work we are doing on equity, at its core, is about making sure each of our students is treated exactly like we would want our own children treated,” she said. “The work we are doing is transparent because we want our community to trust us and to see that this work is centered in goodness and reflection.”

A chilling effect

Even if Vermont doesn’t pass its own laws banning CRT, pressure on school districts could have a chilling effect on how teachers approach sensitive historical topics.

“When people get into that messy stuff, and they’re teaching it … they try to step carefully so as not to scare anybody (or) hurt anybody’s feelings, but still trying to teach facts,” Bliss said.

However, Bliss doesn’t believe teachers will shy away from difficult conversations.

“(Our teachers) are dedicated to all students. And they’re dedicated to teaching students how to be respectful parts of their society,” he said, adding that teachers present topics factually and in ways that challenge students to think critically.

“The reason you learn history is so that you don’t repeat it,” he said.

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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