Multiple leaders of Vermont social justice organizations have found unity in response to what they believe was a snub from Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Sanders Institute.
The institute hosted a 3-day gathering over the weekend during which, according to media reports, various issues important to the Progressive movement were discussed. However, Vermont leaders of organizations active in those causes weren’t invited to speak or learn from national leaders.
An open letter was published on the Facebook page of the Rutland Area and Windham County branches of the NAACP on Saturday.
Since the letter was posted, others have signed on to show their support from Vermont groups such as Black Lives Matter of Greater Burlington, the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity,
The Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools, Justice for All, the ACLU of Vermont and the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe.
Discussing the matter during a conference call Monday, several of the participants noted the importance of coming together.
“This is not something we do. We’ve never done this before,” said Mark Hughes, executive director of Justice for All. “You can tell Bernie, ‘Thank you.’ We really want to thank the Sanders Institute for unifying us in the way in which they did. We’ve never been unified like this before on this level. We’re going to take the momentum from this and carry it into some other initiatives that are more proactive in nature as opposed to responding to this nonsense.”
On Monday, Sanders’ office responded to the concerns identified by the NAACP letter with a statement that said the institute was an independent organization.
“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,” the statement said.
The statement was not well received by people who already felt overlooked by the Sanders Institute event.
“We are not confused about what this event was,” said Tabitha Pohl-Moore, president of the Rutland Area Branch of the NAACP. “Perhaps Bernie himself is confused about what the Progressive movement is.”
Amanda Garces, founder of the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools, said the concerns went beyond the institute’s event to a history of exclusion, even from movements, such as the progressive moment, where inclusion should have been common.
“It’s not just about this invitation but about the overall. All the white-led organizations that were invited that should have stood their ground and said, ‘We need to invite this community here that needs to be there.’ It’s about the whole entire systemic issues that we’ve missed. We shouldn’t have to wait for a white person to say, ‘Follow the lead on this issue’ when we have already been doing that,” she said.
More than half a dozen people, many of them black community members, participated in a phone interview about the NAACP letter Monday. None contradicted the concerns about what they said was Sanders’ lack of action on racial justice issues.
But some saw the division with Sanders’ office as an opportunity. Steffen Gillom, president of the Windham County Branch of the NAACP, said he hoped to see a pivoting point between Sanders and people of color and justice leaders in Vermont.
“We need to have real conversations. This is a pivotal, historic moment. This phone call is even a pivotal historic moment,” he said.
Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, pointed out the people on the call were doing important work.
“It’s your responsibility as a journalist to convey to the general public our sort of collective pain and suffering and, to a certain degree, humiliation by the Sanders Institute and by Bernie himself by not inviting us and making sure the event was inclusive. Inclusive starts in Vermont,” he said.
Reed said he believed people of color from Vermont were deliberately excluded so they wouldn’t share their opinion of Sanders with the Progressive leaders who attended.
Hughes pointed out the people who have become active on the issue are experienced political leaders.
“There are folks on this call who have been doing this work in this state for decades. So don’t get it twisted when you walk away from this call. This is not a bunch of folks who just fell off the back of a truck. … The things that have gotten done as a result of the collective efforts of (the people) on this call is off the charts. This is not amateur hour,” he said.