I want to thank Councilor Hightower for her recent post to Front Porch Forum that drew our attention to the recent audit of Burlington’s Juneteenth celebration for FY21 and FY22. Her motion to evaluate the impact of the audit was unanimously supported by the Council. I stand in solidarity with the Black femmes of this city who seek to interrupt the prevailing narrative that inappropriately targets Tyeastia Green, Burlington’s former Director of Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. Former Councilors Colburn and Siegel have also written about the hypocrisy that surrounds this audit when compared to our inaction to hold Directors who identify as white and male to the same standard of accountability. Please read that letter. Burlington Representative Emma Mulvaney-Stanak has similarly highlighted those hypocrisies in her letter to Mayor Weinberger and the Burlington City Council.
More specifically, I want to stand in support and to amplify the concerns of Ferene Paris Meyer, the woman who has so bravely risen to challenge our Mayor’s decision to initiate the audit and to remind us how misogyny and racism show up in these moments when we scapegoat and silence Black women. I want to speak very clearly on how I have come to trust and rely upon Ferene’s voice.
I have known Ferene since 2008 when she introduced herself to me at a gathering for the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Vermont. She and I worked together within that division for more than a decade prior to her departure. From that moment when she introduced herself to me and we began our long standing dialogue, I have considered Ferene a valued coworker and a cherished friend.
If you were a student at UVM in the 2010s, or the parent of a UVM student in that time period as I was, or if you simply can recall that period of time when UVM became far more deliberate about building an inclusive community, you most certainly have recognized Ferene’s gift to UVM and to Burlington. This is what Ferene does. She builds deliberate communities of inclusion and respect. She and her team with the department of Orientation, then housed with the Office of Student Life, were absolutely instrumental in shifting the message we give to students as they join our larger community each year. I watched as UVM benefited from Ferene’s work and commitment to delivering the institution’s stated mission that centered around the six tenants of Our Common Ground: Respect, Integrity, Innovation, Openness, Justice, and Responsibility.
And then I watched that same institution turn on Ferene as she dared to hold us accountable to those values of justice and respect. When Black women speak truth about the reality of what it means to exist in an overwhelmingly white community we have systemic strategies we use to silence them. And there is a reason why Black women are so often tasked with standing to speak this truth. Because when Black men do so, we quite literally choke them out from ever speaking again. The silencing of Black voices within this country and within our city is well documented.
I have sadly watched far too many of my colleagues of color, especially women of color, leave UVM and our community. I worry about those that remain and the oversized burden they shoulder as they repeatedly stand to remind us of the ways in which the legacy of privilege associated with white supremacy and white patriarchy continues to evolve and morph into various practices. Practices such as scapegoating a Black woman in 2023 who left her post as Director nearly two years ago.
I am grateful that Ferene Paris Meyer remains in the Burlington community. Without hesitation, I trust her view on how our community is shaped by administrative policy and practices. Without hesitation, I believe her when she once again takes the brave step, as she has done countless times to my benefit in the time I have known her, to remind me about how my privilege as a cisgendered, white, heterosexual, man is likely in the way of me seeing how the constructs of race and gender are protecting me in ways that are not equitable to everyone with whom I share this community. Those constructs that currently keep me from ever truly knowing what it might be like to navigate this overwhelmingly white community with identities that have been historically marginalized and oppressed.
Given that truth, my only option is to listen, to truly hear, and then to sincerely believe the stories of brave Black women who are willing to stand, to interrupt, and to speak. I urge you to do the same. Believe Black women.