Racism in Bernie Sanders’ state? Yes, say powerful Black women forced to leave southern Vermont

RUTLAND, Vt. — Paint, strewn across a Black Lives Matter lawn sign her daughter made, marked a turning point for Tabitha Moore. 

It was late August, and Moore had all but decided to leave her home in Wallingford, a small town several miles south of Rutland, Vermont’s third-largest city with a population of 16,000. There, she led the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that she chartered herself in 2016, worked as a cheer coach and previously a guidance counselor for a local high school. She raised three children there, now ages 17, 13 and 9. 

In September, Moore said she’d be moving from Rutland County, home to around 58,000 people — 96.4% of whom are white, much like Vermont, where 94% of the 624,000 residents are white.

Along with the vandalism, her reasons for leaving included instances where she felt harassed, including social media comments targeted at her and her daughter, who had recently fought to raise the Black Lives Matter sign at her school. In recent nights, her children had stayed awake, fearing break-ins.

On Sept. 2, 2020, Tabitha Moore stands in the front lawn of a house she’d soon leave after facing racist harassment. In the background, a Black Lives Matter sign, painted by her daughter and placed in a neighbor’s lawn, had been vandalized, then repainted, a few days earlier. (Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger)

“Tabitha Moore is a Black supremacist,” one commenter wrote in an email to the NAACP, followed by a demand that Moore leave Vermont, peppered with expletives.

And now this: white liquid smeared across the letters her daughter had painted, which spelled out ‘Black Lives Matter,’ as part of a community art project. Neighbors had offered to display the wooden pallet sign on their lawn to protect Moore and her family from being targeted, but it happened anyway.

Stories of Moore and others like her are forcing the overwhelmingly white state, known for its mountains, maple syrup, and progressive political icon Bernie Sanders, to face the reality that some of its citizens of color don’t feel welcome within its bounds.

Last year, in a move welcomed by those advocating for racial equality, Burlington, the state’s largest city, located two hours north of Rutland, declared racism a public health emergency as coronavirus pandemic affected people of color disproportionately. 

About a year ago, the state appointed an executive director for racial equity, who recently told VTDigger that she feels “sufficiently whelmed” in her efforts to advocate for racial equality. Lawmakers have expressed support for expanding her position into an office with more staff members. 

But in Rutland County, residents and officials are often divided about whether systemic racism exists at all, and the division often overflows into a debate that centers around who should receive help. 

After marble quarries closed in the late 20th century, and some industries shuttered, Rutland has struggled from population decline. In the last decade, a manifestation of the opioid epidemic underscored issues of poverty.

In 2016, residents debated whether to locally resettle 100 Syrian families who sought refuge in the United States. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban most Syrians from the country largely halted that effort in its tracks — only four families made it to Rutland before the ban took hold. 

Most recently, alumni, teachers and students began to question whether the Rutland High School’s nickname, the Raiders, and its arrowhead imagery, should change because of its historical ties to harmful Native American stereotypes. School board members recently voted to change the mascot, but some city officials fought for a community-wide vote, hoping to reverse the board’s decision.

‘How can such a thing happen here’?

Despite often contentious discussions, news about Moore’s departure sent shock waves through the community. 

“It was sort of like, how can such a thing happen here?” said Joe Kraus, the former chairman of a local organization called Project VISION, which was founded to address the opioid epidemic, but has since expanded. “That, I think, really sobered us up. This is not somebody else’s issue to deal with. It’s our issue to deal with.”

In late August, sitting on the front steps of the house she’d soon leave, Moore said she wanted the community to acknowledge that racism exists in southern Vermont. 

Tabitha Moore sits for a photo. (Courtesy of Tabitha Moore)

Moore isn’t the first person of color to leave a position of power in the southern part of the state after facing harassment. 

In 2018, the state’s only Black legislator, Kiah Morris, was stalked and harassed by a white supremacist until she declined, despite popularity in her district, to run again. Since then, she’s moved out of Bennington, a town close to Vermont’s southern border. The story went national, but a year later, things in Bennington hadn’t changed.

Despite threats and two burglaries, including one in which Morris’s husband’s ties were stolen from their home and spread across a local cemetery, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan, a Democrat, said he didn’t have enough evidence to charge Morris’s harassers. The racist comments online, he said, were protected under the First Amendment.

“For people in positions of power in Vermont, who are white, mostly male, and from a Christian background, to acknowledge that the lived experience of a person of color, and other backgrounds, faiths and heritages are different, we must listen to their lived experiences, validate their experiences and learn from their experiences,” Donovan said during a 2018 press conference in Bennington. 

Leaders of color in the state, including Moore and Mark Hughes, executive director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, criticized Donovan for his inaction.

“The Attorney General turns around and says, ‘freedom of speech,’” Hughes said. “And nobody in the state has the intestinal fortitude or the political will to stand up and say, ‘foul ball.’ That’s the reason why we are who we are.”

Hughes moved to Vermont 12 years ago from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to accept a position with a six-figure salary at an insurance company. Months later, he quit because of racism in his workplace. 

In his current position, Hughes learned at a meeting of the Gov. Phil Scott’s Workforce Equity & Diversity Council that the rate at which Black people enter and leave Vermont was three times higher than it is for white people. 

“In fact, I’ve seen more Black people come to Vermont and leave than I’ve seen come to Vermont and actually stay,” he said. “I’m talking about folks I personally know. So I’m anomalous, in a sense. I’ve been here a dozen years now.”

Also the executive director of Justice for All, an organization that advocates for equality in Vermont’s justice system, Hughes said that even though Black people represent less than 2% of Vermont’s total population, one in 14 Black men in Vermont are currently incarcerated. According to The Sentencing Project, 10 Black people are incarcerated in Vermont for every white person.

“Everybody says, ‘no, not in Vermont, it could never be in Vermont,’” he said. “It could be that there’s a stronger denial factor here. I think that many folks in Vermont are convinced that everything about Vermont is good.”

Hughes echoes a sentiment often expressed by Moore: with urgency, white people in the state have to try to understand and advocate for people of color in the state, and encourage others to do the same. 

“People have to figure out how to place themselves in between harm and Black and brown people,” he said.

The community faces a loss, he said, when a person of color in a position of power leaves. In Moore’s case, that loss was multifaceted — he noted that harassers and those who remained silent bid farewell to a particularly talented leader. 

“But number two, they did something even worse,” he said. “They fed into the continued perpetuation of that nonsense that’s going on. They strengthened it, they emboldened it, they made it more powerful. And what they created is a trap for the next Tabitha.”

Since Moore announced she’d leave the area, more people of color have come forward to tell their stories about living in Vermont, and leaving the Green Mountain State.

Rosa Benetatos: ‘I’ve come back so many times’

Rosa Benetatos prepares to move from her home in Rutland, Vermont after facing discrimination that eventually made her feel nervous to go to the grocery store. (Photo courtesy of Rosa Benetatos)

On autumn’s first cold day, a blue real estate ‘for sale’ sign stood out against Vermont’s crimson leaves and Rosa Benetatos’s brick house. Masked and bundled on the patio outside, she explained that her family was leaving, selling the house first bought by her grandparents. 

“I’ve tried,” she said. “I’ve come back so many times. I came back after high school, I came back after college. I always feel like it’s gonna work this time, like I’m gonna feel like I belong.”

She was born and raised in Rutland Town, the municipality that surrounds Rutland City, despite other residents’ insistence that she must be from elsewhere. “No, what country?” they always asked, she said. 

At six years old, Rosa’s mom, Kattia, moved to Madison, Connecticut from Costa Rica, then later to Rutland. Rosa remembers that her mom loved Madison. 

“I think because there was more diversity,” Rosa said. “There were other Spanish speaking people there, so she could converse.”

Rosa said her mom struggled at Rutland High School. She was teased for her accent, her body, her hair; items brought back from family visits to Costa Rica were sometimes stolen from her locker. 

Rosa attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. Her mom lived there with her for a while, until a day in December, when Kattia jumped from a nearby bridge, 180 feet above Tampa Bay.

“When someone takes her life, you question why. We’re never going to get an answer,” Rosa said. “One of the things that I look back on and recognize with my mom — and I struggle with it myself — is self-esteem, self worth, confidence.”

Rosa returned home to attend graduate school at the College of St. Joseph’s, which was based in Rutland before it closed in 2019.  She became a school counselor, a decision she said was partly impacted by her mother’s death — her top priority is to instill confidence in her students. 

Rosa has since stayed in Vermont. In graduate school, Rosa would curl her hair and wear extensions, partly because the style reminded her of her mother, and her own heritage. One day when she didn’t wear the extensions, a person close to her, who she calls an authority figure, commented on the change. 

“She was like, ‘Oh, you’re not wearing your Amazon hair today,’” Rosa said. “This was a woman I looked up to, who was my superior, who I was trying to learn from. And I didn’t even pick up on it in the moment, because those are the types of comments I’ve lived with my entire life.”

In recent years, Rosa said her friends have called her “the Black friend,” which drew her attention to the subtle ways she is different.

In 2010, while she lived in Florida, her father, Mark Benetatos, a successful basketball coach, was asked to coach a team at a nearby private high school, Mount Saint Joseph’s Academy, which was suffering from declining enrollment. To that end, Mark participated in a program that brought several teens from the Bronx to Rutland. The students came to Rutland from a neighborhood that reported thousands of assaults and dozens of murders between 2009 and 2012. Immediately, the players boosted the team’s record. 

But what was supposed to be a win-win quickly soured. A film called “Divided by Diversity,” by local documentarian Duane Carleton, outlines the story. 

Families and donors wrote to the coach and the administration, expressing concerns about the out-of-state kids, who were Black. They argued the school should be supported by local students and families. One bumper sticker said “get the Bronx out of Rutland.”

Soon, the attention turned to Rosa’s dad. Parents harassed him on social media, even posting about his clothes. The rhetoric hit a fever pitch when, around the time Rosa graduated from college, a player threatened on social media to snap her dad’s neck. 

“I was going through my own issues at that time, having just lost my mom,” Rosa said. “That was right when all this stuff started. It was confusing. It was frustrating. I didn’t understand why people didn’t like my dad.”

He’s faced harassment since then, Rosa said.

For several months now, Rosa has lived in South Carolina. Each week, she notices that she feels more comfortable curling her hair, or wearing makeup. 

Soon after she arrived there, Rosa announced on social media that she holds conservative political views, something she didn’t feel comfortable admitting while living in Vermont. 

While she doesn’t subscribe to everything former President Donald Trump has said — accusing immigrants from Mexico of being criminals, for example — she doesn’t feel that Vermont’s dedicated progressive ideology protected her from racism, either.  

“I’m sure people have contradicting experiences,” she said. “But from my experience growing up in a liberal state, I have experienced microaggression and racism from liberals.”

Lisa Ryan: ‘I’m not going anywhere’

Lisa Ryan, the first person of color to serve on Rutland City’s governing body, stands in front of Rutland City Hall on January 19, 2021. (Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger)

Lisa Ryan isn’t going to leave Rutland County. But staying — particularly in her position as a member of city government — has become a challenge.

Ryan enjoyed growing up in Rutland City. She played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse, and she had a great group of friends in high school.

“I loved it,” she said. “I really did. I felt there was a great sense of community.”

Itching to see a bigger world, Ryan attended Temple University in Philadelphia. In 2011, she moved home, but Rutland didn’t look the same. The opioid crisis had taken hold; national media outlets wrote about the small Vermont city that had fallen victim to heroin.

Within the state, Rutland City gained an uncommon reputation for high crime numbers, and within the city, morale took a nosedive. 

“I’ll be the first to admit that I jumped on the bandwagon of like, ‘I hate Rutland, Rutland sucks,’” Ryan said. “I didn’t know what to do, I was so upset. That’s when I really started to look outside my realm, and my circle, to see what I could do to get involved in my community.”

That involvement came first through Project VISION, an organization that connects local stakeholders to brainstorm solutions to community problems. Visibility she gained there caused several people to approach her, suggesting she run for a position as a city alderwoman.

Ryan hesitated to run for the board. At first, she said she didn’t even know what it was.

“If I don’t like it, then I don’t run again,” she finally told herself at the time. “And who knows if I’ll win?”

There were six open seats that year, with 17 contestants vying for them. Ryan, overall, won the second highest number of votes. In March of 2017, she became the first person of color ever to serve in Rutland City’s government. Two years later, she was the top vote-getter.

“I really wanted to be a voice for the community,” she said. “I knew that people were counting on me, and that they voted me in for a reason.”

Ryan took her seat on the board several months after President Trump’s inauguration, just as the dust was settling in Rutland City over the contentious conversation about Syrian refugee resettlement.

Through Ryan’s eyes, the ideological chasm among Rutlanders, particularly as it relates to race, has not subsided.

As the chair of the board’s Human Resources Committee, Ryan’s first project — mandatory implicit bias training for city officials — was born in response to a meme another alderman posted to Facebook. 

A Rutland City alderman posted this meme in 2019, sparking Lisa Ryan’s call for implicit bias training for all city employees. The original photo is of a family in a New York tenement kitchen ca. 1915, GroundTruth found. (Screenshot by Emma Cotton from Reddit)

“White privilege,” it said, “The ability to suffer life’s universal indignities without blaming another ethnic group.” Behind the text, a photo showed a white family living in apparent poverty — a mother cooking in a small kitchen alongside three children with oversized, dirt-streaked clothes.

The meme was posted in July, and despite Ryan pressing through the winter, the training hadn’t taken place. Meanwhile, the board’s conversations and local coverage of the issue pushed her to the conflict’s figurative center stage.

“It was such a fight,” she said. “It was eight months of pure hell. I had community members bullying me, I had older men bullying me and harassing me, I had people I don’t even know saying things to me. All because I wanted this training to happen for everybody.” 

She was harassed by other aldermen, city officials and their spouses, she said. 

The city finally held a one-time, non-mandatory training in February of 2020. Over the summer, Ryan posed the idea of holding another training as a refresher, and for new city employees. 

“The thoughts were, ‘we don’t need it,’” Ryan said. “One alderman said that it was embarrassing.”

Recently, Ryan has spoken in favor of changing the high school mascot’s name, tied to racist stereotypes of Native Americans. When fellow members of the board of aldermen tried to bring the question to a non-binding city-wide vote, hoping to convince the school board to keep the name, Ryan spoke out against the referendum. 

“We’re talking about discussing a reason why this is inappropriate, why this is being brought up, and the racism that is embedded within it,” Ryan said at a board meeting in September. “So we want to have that conversation. That’s what folks are asking for. But we can’t even warrant ourselves to have implicit bias training about this very type of thing, which absolutely blows my mind. You all should be ashamed of yourselves.”

When a former alderman posted an article with the final snippet of Ryan’s quote on Facebook, 120 commenters responded. A majority expressed outrage about her comments — and that she held a position on the board at all. Many called Ryan a racist. Ryan said she’s often called a “Black racist.”

Why doesn’t Ms. Ryan tend to city business instead of trying to create a problem that doesn’t exist, or get out,” one commenter wrote, then later, “It’s like we have to change our lives for one or two people.”

“There were days where I didn’t want to get out of bed,” Ryan said. “I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t want to do anything. I just felt like I couldn’t face the world.”

Ryan watched Moore and Morris go through similar cycles: taking positions of power — sometimes with specific hopes of addressing systemic racism — being burdened with stories about harassment, taking a stand, and finally, watching the racism become personal. 

“I was really trying to find the niche that would allow me to still love my city, but also hold it accountable, and be able to work together to improve it,” she said.

It’s taking a toll, she said. But, at the very least, she’s planning to stay.

“They’re trying to drive us out of here,” she said. “Well, guess what? I belong here. I grew up here. I pay taxes here. I’ve lived here my whole life. And I’m not going anywhere.”

Emma Cotton covers​ southern Vermont for VTDigger. This d​ispatch is part of a series called “O​n the Ground​” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @ehcotton