The Franklin conference center was filled with legislators, Aldermen, community leaders, students and members gathered to break bread and celebrate the NAACP’s Freedom Fund dinner on Friday night in Rutland. The event honored former Mayor Chris Louras and the four students who spearheaded the campaign at Rutland High School to get the Black Lives Matter flag raised: Greta Solsaa, Jamison Evans, Noah White and Alex White.
After dinner, keynote speaker and Mill River Unified Union High School graduate Dr. Maria Stephens congratulated the NAACP and President Tabitha Moore for the work they did in past and recent times, especially given the tumultuous state of the United States political system.
“Doing this work in the second-whitest state is no small task,” Stephens said. “Particularly at a time of rising white-supremacist activity here and across the nation.”
She recalled her upbringing, and how she had known about her first-hand reading and learning about social justice and social change. She made it a point of her career to understand what created conflict, what nourished it, and what shot it down.
There were times when Stephens, in her work both in Washington, D.C., and across the world, where she personally witnessed governments strangling the democratic and human rights of their people, and watched how their citizens resisted.
Time and time again, Stephens recalled, peaceful resistance created a resilient culture that grew stronger and larger in movement as time went on, and proved to be more effective than violence.
“(Hong Kong student activists are) Taking the advice of Hong Kong Kung-Fu star Bruce Lee, who said to “be water,” and activists have gone from fixed-rallies and sit-ins to agile, fluid marches demonstrations and protests,” Stephens said. “They swarmed the international airport last week and shut it down. They’ve targeted lasers at facial recognition surveillance cameras to prevent them from recognizing their faces. They’ve placed traffic cones over tear-gas cannisters fired at them from the police in order to redirect the smoke away from the protesters, and their struggle continues.”
Throughout history, Stephens remarked, peaceful victories vastly outnumbered violent ones as they stoked the majority of people who believed in a person’s right to live and contribute to society without facing violent adversity — especially concerning their race, religion, sexuality or lifestyle — to band together and become stronger as an unmovable center protected by each other.
“People power and peace building are two sides of the same coin,” Stephens said. “You need both dialogue and direct action to achieve sustainable change.”
High school history teacher Jennie Gartner presented former mayor Chris Louras as the beneficiary of the Courage in Action award, commending his five terms in seven years as mayor during which West Ridge Clinic was created, Tropical Storm Irene hit and and 100 Syrian Refugee families would be designated to resettle in Rutland.
“Something deeper inside (also) stirred him to action,” Gartner said of Louras’s decision to seek designation as a resettlement site. “That is his desire for justice. His need to do what is right. ... Mayor Louras did not back away because of the controversy and the backlash ... he understood the consequences all too well.”
Gartner’s words brought resounding applause and cheers from the crowd, and a standing ovation when he was called to accept his award whereupon he credited Colonel Chief James Baker and Curtis Reed, executive director for the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
Louras also called Moore a “north star” for inspiration and progressive thinking, before turning his attention to the table directly in front of the podium, where sat Jamison Evans, Noah and Alex White, commending them for their bravery, resilience, and perseverance in getting the Black Lives Matter flag raised at Rutland High School this past April.
“I’d like to think I’ve had a small piece of everything you’ve done for your community and your generation,” Louras said to the students and the audience, speaking about the effort to raise the BLM flag. “When given a choice between the harder right and the easier wrong, always, always choose the harder right.”
Originally a founder of the New Neighbors club at Rutland High School facilitated by Gartner, Lily Schillinger said Jamison, Noah, Alex and their classmate Greta Solsaa were among the 40 students who came to the first New Neighbors meeting to plan for their new Syrian classmates.
Instead, they ended up raising the Black Lives Matter flag, carrying on the mission of the New Neighbors Club in fostering awareness, inclusion and collective resilience.
“They persevered and stood up for the marginalized,” Schillinger said. “These four students and their peers are affecting positive change in their community, and they should be lauded for it.”
The students, honored with the Youth Courage in Action award, ascended the podium to roaring applause and a standing ovation from everyone in the room — including representative Kiah Morris, as they accepted their awards.
“I know that Ms. Gartner will keep leading them to do great things while we’re gone at college,” Noah White said on behalf of the group, after thanking Moore and their fellow students for helping them achieve what they once thought impossible.
The lifetime achievement award went to husband-and-wife couple, Neil and Mickey Richardson, who founded Focus on Racial Equality in Randolph, and fought heartily against racial bias after growing up endeavoring to better understand why certain races were perceived differently and prejudices abounded.
After witnessing legal racial segregation during their honeymoon in 1961, the couple returned to their church in Massachusetts, where they worked with the rector in their town and hosted youth groups integrating people of color and white people.
The Richardsons served as delegates of various chapters of national and county chapters of the NAACP, dedicated their young lives to combating racial violence and bias before they moved to Vermont in the 80s and later established FORE.
“If I have accomplished anything in my life, it has to do with a lot of people who very graciously welcomed me into their world so that I could learn about race, and quite frankly, learn about myself,” Neil said, before listing off the names of his admired influences in reverent tones.
Including one of the organizers of the event.
“Tabitha,” Neil said. “She is an extraordinary leader. And I will strive to follow her to the best of my ability.”
“In lily-white Vermont, we haven’t had any exposure,” Mickey said. “So we have to talk about it. ... (Stephens) had laid out a whole bunch of tools, so there’s no excuse. ... Don’t be afraid to speak up. If you hear something that you know is wrong, challenge it. You know where your heart is.”