Racial and Social Justice
The Work Continues...
There's been a shift that has opened the way for long overdue next steps in addressing Injustices for Women, BIPOC,
LGBTQ+, Indigenous Peoples and other oppressed and marginalzed communities.
The Me,Too Movement began opening the eyes of a society closed to what was happening for all too many women and minoritites.
The murders of Black and Brown people by police and the recogniziton that Police policies need to updated to reflect the reality of the 21st Cenutry, are leading to legislative actions to address systemic racism.
As a member of the Social Equity Caucus, I'm pleased to report that we have helped push the process of researching, crafting and passing bills to address Systemic Racism. The Legisalture passed bills to prohibit Choke Holds and update trainng for police, including how to better deal with people in a Mental Health Crisis.
The Legisatlure also passed bills that bring civilians on to the Board that overseas Law Enforcement training. And working with the Governor, the Racial Equity Task Force has started the process of looking at Systemic Racism. This includes hearing from as many Vermonters as possible how their everyday lives experience racism.Here's the highlights of bills from the just concluded biennium.
LEGISLATIVE BIENNIUM 2021-22 – SUMMARY: RACIAL AND SOCIAL EQUITY
Amending Vermont’s Constitutional to Address Slavery
Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777 when it ratified its first constitution. But the ban is not absolute. As currently written, the prohibition against slavery only applies to people over the age of 21. Additionally, under the current language, the Constitution does not bar a Vermonter over 21 from consenting to being bound into slavery. Proposal 2 would amend Article 1, Chapter 1 of the Vermont Constitution, replacing this original section with language stating plainly that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Changing the state constitution is a four-year process. The legislature must approve proposed language in two successive biennia. In early February 2022, the legislature gave its second vote to approve. The proposed amendment will now be placed on the ballot for all Vermont voters to consider in November 2022. Some may question the need for this change because slavery has been outlawed in the United States since 1865. But the unfortunate reality in 2022 is that forms of modern slavery, such as sex trafficking and the labor of undocumented immigrants, still exist in this country and Vermont has not been spared. Given the continuing challenges with racism in our society, passing Prop 2 ;sends a crucial message about the aspirations we have for our State and how all Vermonters deserve to be treated.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
H.96 would establish the Vermont Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission will spend three years examining systemic discrimination that has been caused or permitted by State laws and policies. Its final report, due by June 2026, will detail findings and recommend steps Vermont can take to eliminate institutional, structural and systemic discrimination, and to address the related harm. Progress reports are due every year to the legislature. In creating a Vermont that works for all, it’s essential we seek out the voices of communities that have been and remain impacted by discrimination and racism — to learn from their experiences and work with them to eliminate disparities and redress harms.
Expanding Access, Lowering Barriers to Safe and Affordable Housing
In 2015, the General Assembly passed a mechanism for creating a revolving fund within the Vermont Housing Finance Agency called the Down Payment Assistance Program for first-time homebuyers who meet income-based criteria. The program has been very successful. From 2015 through March of 2022, it has provided $7,474,098 in loans to 1,565 borrowers. If signed by the Governor, S.226 would expand the Program to include a $1 million grant program for first-time home buyers who are also first-generation buyers. The bill recognizes that Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color have historically not had access to capital for homeownership purchases and have been systemically discriminated against in the housing market. It directs the Agency to work with Vermont chapters of the NAACP, the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the Executive Director of Racial Equity, the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and local racial justice organizations to develop an outreach plan to ensure that down payment assistance opportunities are effectively communicated, and that funds are equitably available, to communities of Vermonters who have historically suffered housing discrimination.
S.226 also would amend provisions of the Vermont public accommodations and fair housing laws. Those laws are currently under-enforced because Vermont courts inconsistently apply the current standards for harassment and discrimination claims in the sale or rental of a dwelling or real estate. S.226 clarifies and simplifies those standards to remove barriers to such claims. (In a separate bill, H.729, the statute of limitations for filing such claims is extended to six years.)
Finally, S.226 would establish an advisory Land Access Opportunity Board to promote access to woodlands, farmland, as well as to home ownership for Vermonters from historically marginalized or disadvantaged communities. The Board will be comprised of the Executive Director of Racial Equity and members appointed by the Commission on Native American Affairs, Vermont NAACP, Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, Liberation Ecosystem, Vermont Every Town Project, Vermont Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Pride Center of Vermont, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants Vermont, and the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council. The bill appropriates $200,000 in FY 2023 to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) to administer and support the Land Access and Opportunity Board. In FY 2023, and FY 2024 and FY 2025 as funding is made available, VHCB will provide general accounting and administrative support to the Board. The Board will advise VHCB on policy development and programs related to property ownership to promote racial, social, economic, and climate justice for Vermonters from marginalized or disadvantaged communities.
Racial Justice Statistics
Vermonters of color make up a disproportionate number of incarcerated persons in our state. To help identify and address the sources of these disparities, we need better data from the State’s criminal justice system. To that end, H.546 creates a Division of Racial Justice Statistics in the Office of Racial Equity. The new division will collect data on individual interactions with law enforcement, State’s Attorneys, Vermont courts, the Department of Corrections, and other entities in order to uncover and remedy systemic racial bias and disparities in our criminal and juvenile justice system. An advisory council has also been created to incorporate the data into suggestions for concrete actions the legislature can take.
Environmental justice means ensuring equitable distribution of environmental benefits, such as clean air and water. S.148establishes a state environmental justice policy and strengthens public engagement using a citizen-based advisory council and interagency committee. The bill also supports the development of a mapping tool to visualize environmental harms — ranging from contamination and exposure to toxins to unsafe housing, lack of open green space, or vulnerability to flooding — that impact some of our communities. Many communities suffer disproportionately from environmental harm, including low-income Vermonters, people with disabilities or limited English proficiency, and Vermonters who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color. The work supported by this bill will help the State plan for and target our investments and restoration activities, so no community bears the brunt of environmental harms or shares in fewer environmental benefits.
Promoting Economic Opportunity for BIPOC Businesses
This biennium, legislators began addressing racial wealth disparities and the historical impacts of economic exploitation and exclusion from economic opportunity. The legislature engaged BIPOC business and community leaders across the state to inform and develop legislation to create a BIPOC business development project. This effort resulted in the legislature providing $150,000 for a process to evaluate the needs of BIPOC businesses and provide recommendations on how best to assist BIPOC- and women-owned businesses. The Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity was awarded a contract to convene stakeholders for fact-finding and to help develop the recommendations. That process is ongoing, with recommendations expected by November 2022. Efforts are also under way at the Secretary of State's office to set up a small business portal that includes data on Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises as well as Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.
This year, S.11 appropriated $250,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act – Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to provide statewide delivery of business coaching and other forms of training to BIPOC business owners. The funding will also support networking, career fairs, workshops, paid internships, career guidance, and other support for BIPOC workers across the State.
Expanding the Office of Racial Equity
Before the 2021 session, legislators heard from constituents that Vermonters were dealing not with one pandemic, but three: COVID-19, climate change, and systemic racism. In addressing systemic racism, one of the glaring needs identified was bolstering personnel at the State’s Office of Racial Equity. When this office was created in 2018 and Xusana Davis hired as Director, the legislature did not know how widely its services would be used and requested. The workload has continued to grow, with the Director being flooded with requests to sit on committees and boards, meet with Vermonters, review policies, and offer expertise to all three branches of state government. It became clear that the needs of the Office were far greater than one person could handle. To help, two full-time positions were added to the Office of Racial Equity.
Racism as a Public Health Emergency
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the severe inequities in our public health systems. For example, while Black residents comprise only 1 percent of Vermont’s population, they accounted for almost 5 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases in 2020. Highlighting a strong body of evidence, J.R.H.6 acknowledges systemic racism as a direct cause of the adverse health outcomes experienced by BIPOC communities in Vermont. It also commits our State to the “sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism throughout the State, actively fighting racist practices, and participating in the creation of more just and equitable systems.” J.R.H.6 was drafted through the collaboration of impacted communities and gained the broad support of the legislature and the Vermont Department of Health.
Promoting Healthcare Equity
The Department of Health’s 2018 State Health Assessment reveals that not all Vermonters have an equal opportunity to be healthy. From higher morbidity to health care access, statistics show significant disparities across the Green Mountain State based on race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability status. Act 33 begins the long-term process of breaking down these barriers. The law creates a Health Equity Advisory Commission made up primarily of Vermonters whose lives have been impacted by historic inequitable treatment in accessing healthcare, while empowering the Advisory Commission to develop an Office of Health Equity by no later than January 1, 2023.
Healthcare for Undocumented Children and Pregnant Persons
Act 48 provides immediate, increased access to healthcare for income-eligible children and pregnant persons, regardless of their immigration status, by establishing a Dr. Dynasaur-like healthcare program. These undocumented individuals often work or live with their families on the farms and dairies that are essential to our Vermont economy. Because of fear that their immigration status will be revealed, confidentiality is critical. We know that prenatal care and medical care in childhood can improve health outcomes over a lifetime, as well as reduce costs for both education and healthcare systems.
Supporting Transgender Youth
Recognizing that several states have restricted or banned access to best practice medical care for transgender youth, the General Assembly in J.R.S. 53 affirmed its support for transgender youth and their parents who seek essential medical care for the treatment of gender dysphoria. Minor patients, their parents, and their healthcare providers should have the freedom to decide what medical care is appropriate for a patient in accordance with current medical best practices. In the resolution, the General Assembly commits to exploring all available options to ensure that transgender youth and their families are safe in Vermont to make the best medical care decisions for themselves in consultation with their healthcare providers.
Apology for Eugenics
In J.R.H.2, the Vermont legislature acknowledges and apologizes for sanctioning and supporting eugenics practices through legislation. These practices led to forced family separation, sterilization, incarceration, and institutionalization for hundreds of Vermonters in the early 20th century. These policies targeted the poor and persons with mental and physical disabilities, as well as individuals, families, and communities whose heritage was documented as French-Canadian, French-Indian, or other mixed ethnic or racial composition, and persons whose extended families’ successor generations now identify as Abenaki or as members of other indigenous bands or tribes. The traumatic ripple effect of these state-led actions has been felt through the generations and has had real and tangible impacts on the lives of Vermonters today. The resolution does not undo the harms of the past but marks an essential step towards a future of accountability and reconciliation for generations of Vermonters who were harmed by state-sanctioned violence. The resolution also recognizes that further legislative action must be taken to address the continuing impacts of eugenics policies.
Eliminating the “Trans Panic” Defense
In some states, courts have allowed defendants to rely on what is known as a “trans panic” defense to have assault charges against them reduced or dismissed altogether. The defense is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent action. Act 18 prohibits the use of such a defense in Vermont.
Penalties for Hate-Motivated Crimes
Act 34 updates Vermont’s response to crimes motivated by hate, providing an enhanced penalty that a prosecutor can charge in addition to the underlying crime. Previously, the law provided that a prosecutor must prove that a crime was maliciously motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, service in the U.S. Armed Forces or the National Guard, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or perceived membership in any such group. Act 34 eases the burden for prosecutors by providing that the defendant need not be maliciously motivated, but rather simply motivated in whole or in part by the victim’s inclusion in one of the protected categories.
Clarifying Standard for Police Use of Force
In 2020, the legislature enacted Acts 147 and 165 that together provided statutory standards for police use of force, including lethal force. Last year, the legislature passed Act 27, which clarified that law enforcement may use chokeholds only when lethal force is justified. Under the law, before use of a chokehold or other deadly force can be justified, its use must be objectively reasonable and necessary to defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury and there must be no reasonable alternative to the use of deadly force to prevent death or serious bodily injury. The use of a chokehold must cease as soon as the subject no longer poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.
Pupil Weighting Factors
In Vermont, we take seriously our collective responsibility for educating all our students in every corner of the state. This year, in S.287, we took significant steps to update our education funding system to account for the varying costs of educating different categories of students. For example, it costs more to achieve equivalent educational outcomes for English language learners or children from economically deprived backgrounds than for children who are not in those cohorts. S.287 modifies the educational funding mechanism to provide districts with the resources needed to achieve strong outcomes for all students.
Ensuring Equitable, Inclusive Schools
Act 35 creates a "Task Force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments" to provide recommendations on how to end suspensions and expulsions for all but the most serious student behaviors. The task force will also compile data from all Vermont schools to measure the effectiveness of current disciplinary policies and practices, as well as analyze how to maximize research-based strategies to support all students’ academic, social and emotional needs in a comprehensive way. The House Education Committee received extensive testimony indicating that nationally, students of certain racial and ethnic groups, LGBTQIA+ and male youth, and those with disabilities are disciplined at higher rates than their peers. Long-term, exclusionary discipline is correlated with poorer health outcomes, higher school drop-out rates, increased likelihood of living in poverty as an adult, and higher incarceration rates.
This year the legislature passed a small update to Act 35 to prohibit independent schools and approved private prekindergarten programs from suspending or expelling a student who is under eight years of age. The law originally had applied only to public schools. The initial report of the Task Force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments was published in February 2022 and includes several legislative recommendations that will require follow-up in the next Biennium.
Updating Our Educational Quality Standards
In Act 1 of 2019, the legislature created a working group to review our educational standards and to recommend updates — or additional standards — to fully recognize the history, contributions, and perspectives of various ethnic and social groups. The goals include: promoting critical thinking, increasing cultural competency among Vermont students grades preK to 12, eradicating racial bias and ensuring curriculum is welcoming to all students, and helping students safely explore questions of identity, race equality and racism. As of May 2022, the working group has submitted recommendations on Vermont’s Education Quality Standards to the State Board of Education for review, a public process that will take up to eight months. The next step for the working group is to hire a consultant to review the curriculum content standards.
Nondiscriminatory School Branding
S.139 promotes positive and inclusive learning environments in all Vermont schools and for all students by eliminating the use of discriminatory school branding. This restraint covers any name, symbol or image used as a mascot, nickname, logo, letterhead, team name, slogan or motto. The bill requires the Secretary of Education to work with relevant stakeholders to develop a model policy. The policy will prohibit any school branding that references or stereotypes a person — or group of people — based on race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity. It also prohibits branding based on any person or group that’s associated with the repression of others. The Agency of Education must adopt the new policy by August 2022. After that, school boards will have until January 2023 to review their own school’s branding and adopt the model policy or one that’s at least as comprehensive. The bill also sets up a complaint and appeal process through AOE.
Social Equity in Cannabis Licensing
Act 62, a miscellaneous bill that adds to cannabis regulations established in 2020, includes several new social equity-related programs. The Cannabis Control Board was tasked with creating a plan for reducing or eliminating licensing fees for individuals from communities that historically have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition or individuals directly and personally impacted by cannabis prohibition. A Cannabis Business Development Fund was established to provide low-interest rate loans and grants to social equity applicants to pay for ordinary and necessary expenses to start and operate a licensed cannabis establishment; to pay for outreach that may be provided or targeted to attract and support social equity applicants; and to assist with job training and technical assistance for social equity applicants. ACCD will be required to report back on utilization of the program.
quitable Access to Transportation
In the transportation sector, inequity takes many forms, from not being heard when large transportation projects are planned to not being able to access or afford private or public transportation. Last year’s Transportation Bill addressed inequity by requiring a comprehensive analysis of Vermont’s transportation programs. The resulting report will create an equity framework that will be used to increase mobility options, reduce air pollution, and enhance economic opportunity for Vermonters in communities that have been historically underserved by the State’s transportation programs. As of the end of the Biennium, the report has not yet been published.
In addition, millions of dollars in incentives have been appropriated to help Vermonters who may have to choose between filling up the tank or filling up the fridge. These income-qualifying programs include “Emissions Repair” (to help pay for repairs needed to pass vehicle inspection), “Replace Your Ride” (an incentive to turn in an inefficient vehicle), and “Mileage Smart” (to help purchase a used vehicle). And for those using public transit, Zero Fare bus transportation continues through June 2023.