by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – Last Thursday, a group of over two dozen Hardwick residents met virtually under the auspices of the Hardwick Area Community Allies to discuss issues of racism. While prompted by what resident Amy Rosenthal described as a “shocking incident of anti-Semitism” at the beginning of the month, the meeting was not intended to re-litigate that incident, but was “about how we as a community want to respond [to prejudice] and how we want to be in this community.”
In the recent incident, a Hardwick resident had been experiencing anti-Semitic harassment from some of her own neighbors, culminating with the morning she woke up to find her door defaced with the words “Go back to Maryland, you k*k* bitch.”
It proved difficult for the attendees to take the focus off that specific incident. Rosenthal noted “I know… those of us who are Jewish obviously had one reaction. But for me personally, it also made me think of all the other folks in this community who have similar experiences all the time, and we don’t hear about it or we don’t know about it.”
She added “I know for me personally, it’s probably one of the first times that I’ve felt frightened in this community as a person who’s Jewish, and [I’ve] never had that experience. Certainly not here.”
Other residents described the current socio-political climate as amplifying concerns for their own safety.
One resident said that “this scared me. It brought back when I was ten years old I was sitting in the lunchroom at school and a kid across the table from me who was two years older and a lot bigger started calling me a ‘dirty k*k*.’ I got up and went to the teacher on lunchroom duty to ask if I could move my seat. She told me I had to go back to my seat because I had to learn to live with all kinds of people. And that has stayed with me… seeing the word ‘k*k*’ on someone’s door was really, really, disturbing to me, especially in [this] environment, as others have said, about Charlottesville, about what’s gone on in this country with violence, with the rise in anti-Semitism.”
Other residents said that the incident did not surprise them. Judith Levine said “I’ve been a Jew in Hardwick for a long time, and I don’t find this at all shocking. I live in Brooklyn half the time, and I live in Hardwick half the time. I’ve never thought that Vermont was any sort of [safe] haven or anything.”
Lamoille Housing Partnership is part-owner of the house where the incident took place, and its Executive Director, Jim Lovinsky, spoke up. Lovinsky said that “There’s always more than just one side to these things, and even though none of us want to feel that, [that] anyone should be singled out or have something like this written on the door, there’s always more to it than that. This is a community and there are five other families that live in this building, and I think that there may be some circumstances where those families also need to be included in this, because they’re now living in fear of losing their housing because of this incident that may not be all their fault.”
A resident responded “Mr. Lovinsky, it sounds like you’re saying that somebody could have done something and somehow deserved to be called a k*k*.”
Lovinsky said in “lots of investigations” he has been involved in regarding disputes among tenants, he had “not found any instance where there’s not plenty of blame to go around and plenty of responsibility that could be taken by people.”
A resident said the incident itself should be separated from the wider issue of prejudice because while there was a dispute “they could have just called her a bitch or some other thing, but the fact they used the word ‘k*k*’ is a larger issue.”
She said “about thirty years ago there was a swastika painted on a store in town. I felt disgusted but I didn’t feel afraid for myself. In the current political environment, it’s scarier than it was before. Using that language puts that into a category of hatred. There is no justification for that.”
The resident asked Lovinsky “What if somebody had painted ‘n*gg*r’ on the door? I think it might have maybe been more understandable that this was an unacceptable thing to do.”
Lovinsky said that language “would not be any more understandable to me than what was written on her door. I will not accept that language from anyone.”
The discussion eventually shifted to the broader subject of community prejudice, as originally intended. People discussed the role of the police. Many did not feel that it would be beneficial to involve law enforcement, with one resident describing the incident as “an educational opportunity yet again for a police chief who needs it dearly.” Others felt that involving the justice system or law enforcement would, at minimum, be ineffective and could possibly make things worse.
Hazen Union teacher Anja Pfeffer said she grew up in former East Germany “with a very specific education [about prejudice].” She said “I’m thinking in terms of young people, who, whether they are aware of what was in the Gazette or actually saw what was written or heard about it, it will shape their experience, whether it’s an experience of fear, whether it’s an experience of added hatred that they don’t even understand where it’s coming from. And given the polarization of the world around and the pain so many of our young people are feeling right now, it is really, really important to have open conversations.”
Pfeffer said that Hazen Union has teacher-student advisories (TSAs) every morning. TSAs are intended as “ideally a small group where people feel safe” but the pandemic had disrupted that practice.
She said “people are really struggling, especially this year. It’s been a very, very, very hard school year. I’m not sure to what extent TSAs are feeling comfortable enough for teachers and students to have such a conversation right now, even though that’s what the TSA is supposed to be for.”
That brought the role of Hazen Union into the conversation. An eleventh-grade student spoke up and said that “the culture at Hazen is not a very safe place for many students and there’s lots of anti-Semitic, racist and other things that happen frequently, and it seems like there’s not much work that’s being done about it.” They said education on issues of prejudice was important.
Former Hazen Union Principal David Perrigo said “when [the student] says it’s not safe to be at Hazen, there’s an enormous deep truth to that in many ways.” He said that if the schools can’t build “safe, belonging places for students, the communities are never going to be able to do it, either.”
Netdahe Stoddard, who said he does “intervention work with kids who are acting out, [or exhibiting] racist, homophobic, sexist behavior,” said that it would be good to get in touch with the school and have conversations. It was suggested that schools bring in someone from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as Stowe schools have done.
Rosenthal, speaking as chair of the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union School Board, said she “certainly” was interested in addressing the issues at school “but we need to be addressing our community of adults. We can’t just look into the schools and say, solve our problems and we’ll be okay.”
Jennifer Fliegelman said “it’s really hard for the school to make these changes when kids are going home and hearing hateful things. It’s a tall order to expect Hazen to be able to change these behaviors in kids when they’re getting a very different message at home.”
Ross Connelly said “the fact the town manager responded in a way that he did, and I heard was very appalled by what happened, I think that’s something that is really good. I just think the idea of the town manager, the select board, the equity committee being approached [and] being asked to respond publicly is very important. I’m all for the schools doing whatever the schools can do, but we’re not in the schools, we’re in the community. Our institution is the select board/town manager form of government, and it appears we have an open ear here.”
With ninety minutes of discussion and a recognition that many of the people speaking were already involved in trying to improve the situation, and the discussion was therefore “preaching to the choir,” Rosenthal decided that a number of positive ideas had been put forth so that initial steps could be taken.
She said “I know I feel less alone and less frightened knowing that there are other people in this community who were impacted and care, and that I can call on you all to show up. And so I know I appreciate that, as a member of the Community Allies, we will continue to create opportunities to have these kinds of conversations.”
Rosenberg later said that half of those participating in Thursday’s discussion were new to the Community Allies mailing list, which she said meant that those people “can hear directly about our book study groups, community conversations and any other topics that come to us that folks want to talk about. In the past it has been about racism, food security, sexual assault, and reparations.” Rosenthal added she wanted to “let the community know that there is a group out there that is filled with concerned citizens that they can turn to if they have an issue they would like to explore further or just want to talk.”