Last week, the Sanders Institute hosted a three-day forum on progressive ideas, but looking at the guest list, a number of Vermonters, many of them black leaders of political organizations, are feeling excluded, angry and marginalized.
The event was described by the Associated Press as a “pep rally for ... policy issues such as universal health care, protecting the environment and economic and criminal justice reform.” The Sanders Institute is an independent nonprofit but Sen. Bernie Sanders was a speaker at the event.
A letter written by Tabitha Pohl-Moore and Steffen Gillom, the presidents of the NAACP’s Rutland Area Branch and Windham County Branch, respectively, and signed by other social justice leaders, asked how Sanders “could be ‘awoken,’ in the words of Victor Lee Lewis, when you come home to Vermont to talk about justice and institutional oppression and don’t invite the very people you represent?”
Pohl-Moore called the forum an “elitist event” that excluded Vermonters who worked diligently with marginalized people to create Vermont’s reputation as a progressive state.
“If there is a meeting and they are sitting at the table, we ask them to have a seat on that table,” added Wafic Faour, a member of Vermonters for Justice in Palestine and Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington.
Kiah Morris, a former state representative for Bennington, who resigned because she was receiving threats and harassment, said it was not news that Vermont was in the midst of a “crisis when it comes to the rights and the experiences of people of color.”
“It’s international news. If there was ever an opportunity to show our Vermont leaders — because it was held in Vermont. That was not a mistake — so if we ask the global leaders that we are to be driving these conversations, than we have to be there. There is no future without us,” she said.
Asked to explain how the guests and speakers were chosen for the forum and to respond to the letter from Pohl-Moore and Gillom, which was posted on Facebook, Sanders’ office released a statement.
“The senator is proud that the Sanders Institute was able to bring progressives from all over the country and from throughout the world to our state of Vermont to discuss some of the biggest issues we face. Needless to say, in Vermont, like other states across the country, there are some very serious social and racial justice challenges, and the senator looks forward to continuing his work with Vermonters on these issues.”
Morris said she was especially offended because people of color already recognized systemic racism as toxic.
“For us to be excluded and only considered as an afterthought and to have to sort of beg our way in is a ridiculous notion,” she said.
Beverly Little Thunder, an activist and member of the Peace and Justice Board, called the effort to pass responsibility to the Sanders Institute an “old game played by white men all over this country.”
Discussing the event on Monday, many who had spent years or even decades working for social justice expressed disappointment in Sanders.
“This is a well-established pattern that Sanders has illustrated over the decades of marginalizing people of color, of not extending himself to understand our experiences here as they relate to micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations, micro-injustices. He has shown himself incapable or unwilling to do what it takes to engage us, one-to-one or collectively, in terms of understanding what our experiences are in this state and how he might be able to mitigate the negative effects of systemic racism,” said Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
Reed added Sanders had “never stepped foot in the arena of social justice for the state of Vermont.”
The executive director for Justice For All, Mark Hughes, said he was going to say “all the things nobody is saying.”
“We also have a so-called progressive, neo-liberal white movement across this state that worships — and I say that with a capital W — Bernie Sanders and will come at you, sideways, if you say anything about him, in conjunction with Bernie being extremely defensive, which creates an environment similar to that that’s created by Trump himself because no one wants to say anything,” he said.
Gillom said progressive politicians could be taking a risk by not considering exclusion.
“Gone are the days when people of color are just going to sit by idly while movements use our intellectual capacity and promote themselves on our backs and we just go with it. We have come a long way and people of color are resilient,” he said.
Hughes added that the issue would not be forgotten.
“We’re disappointed in what Bernie Sanders had to say about this. … I expect there will be some pushback, especially from our so-called white neo-liberal progressives who are hugely protective of Bernie, I’m fully expecting that and I’m looking forward to the conversations,” he said.