Ilstrup

Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup outside the council offices in Montpelier.

With the selection of “The Hate U Give” as the 2020 Vermont Reads and the current state of race relations in America right now, the Vermont Humanities Council is leading important discussions across the state that are reshaping how people think about systemic racism, and more.

“We knew that ‘The Hate U Give’ would likely provoke passionate conversations in Vermont. In some cases those conversations are difficult or challenging. We hope readers will learn, grow, speak up, speak out, make mistakes, and learn some more. And we hope they will feel empathy and compassion for the many different characters they will encounter in Angie Thomas’ book,” said Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, VHC’s executive director.

‘The Hate U Give,’ the debut novel by Thomas, is about a teenage girl who grapples with racism, police brutality, and activism after witnessing her black friend murdered by the police. The young adult bestseller and was adapted into a movie.

“We chose The Hate U Give because we knew that we needed a strong contemporary follow-up to our 2019 book, ‘March: Book One’ by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. March is about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and we wanted to choose a book that shows that movement continuing today. ‘The Hate U Give’ is certainly an important book in the Black Lives Matter movement, and we wanted to encourage young people to see themselves as part of the conversation,” Ilstrup said.

“With this book, many communities are choosing to begin difficult, and long-overdue, conversations about systemic racism. Those conversations often involve many local institutions like town government, schools, libraries and churches and sometimes police. We’ve even had strong interest from large private businesses interested in doing more to raise awareness about systemic racism. We are supporting communities that need training for these conversations by helping them find skilled facilitators that we will pay for,” Ilstrup said.

Dealing with issues concerning race is not new to Vermont Reads. The first book selected in 2003 was “Witness” by Vermont author Karen Hesse. That book was also about a young girl experiencing racism when the Klu Klux Klan began recruiting in her small Vermont town in the early part of the 20th century.

Vermont Reads is Vermont Humanities Council’s statewide community reading program. Since its inception thousands of Vermonters in towns across the state have participated.

“What’s important to remember about Vermont Reads is that it’s not a book club, it’s not just a program where we hand out free books and then we’re done. In order to get books you have to present a plan to do projects around the book’s themes in your community. And you have to work in collaboration with two or more organizations, you can’t do it by yourself,” Ilstrup said.

Many of the books selected, including “The Hate U Give,” read at a middle school level of difficulty.

“We choose books that are accessible to readers of all ages, typically from a middle-grade or young adult reading level. We do that so a wide range of ages can participate. Vermont Reads is for everyone,” Ilstrup said.

VHC ordered 4,000 copies of the book last summer and began giving them out for free last fall. So far, more than 50 different community projects have taken place with several dozens more planned.

“The pandemic put the program on pause for several months, as we really couldn’t ship books out to closed community organizations. But over the summer requests for books and plans for new programs picked up again and we’re once again shipping books. Several of our summer Humanities Camps used the book and built their camps around Black Lives Matter themes,” Ilstrup said.

In response to the impact of COVID-19, the council will continue the discussion about “The Hate U Give” for an extra six months, ending on June 30, 2021, and switch next year’s discussion to an academic year rather than a calendar year.

“We really hit pause on the program for about four months from March to June so we want to make up that time for months it was totally impractical to ship books or ask communities to run programs. That said, with the horrible murder of George Floyd, many communities have really stepped up and become a lot more active in the struggle against systemic racism and that has certainly increased interest in this book,” Ilstrup said.

“Like all cultural organizations, the pandemic has been deeply disruptive. We are more fortunate than most however as we don’t rely on ticket sales to survive, almost all of our work is provided free of charge to the community,” he said.

The council also has been involved, with other arts organizations, in the distribution of more than $5 million CARES Act relief grants to 122 cultural organizations.

“Mind you, that seems like a lot of money but when we added up the projected losses in the cultural sector for the spring and summer it came out to more than $35 million. Many cultural organizations, especially the performance venues like the Paramount (Theatre in Rutland), are likely to be closed for a year or more so their small grant from the CARES act is just a drop in the bucket,” Ilstrup said.

VHC is funded by private donors, the State of Vermont, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ilstrup has led Vermont Humanities Council since August 2018. He began his career as a canvas director for Vermont Public Interest Research Group. He was the first executive director of the Pride Center of Vermont and he has worked at Flynn Center in Burlington, the Vermont Community Foundation and with Bread & Puppet Theater working on a show about the International Monetary Fund.

Vermont Reads has not yet picked a book for the 2021/2022 year. To nominate a book go to: https://www.vermonthumanities.org/vermont-reads/suggest-a-vermont-reads-book

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