Black women persevere to lead in Vermont despite harassment

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In this Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021, photo, Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland area branch of the NAACP, poses for a picture, in Bennington, Vt. Schultz has watched three other Black women in Vermont resign from leadership posts because of harassment and threats and has seen Black acquaintances move away from the progressive state because they felt unwelcome. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Mia Schultz has watched three other Black women in Vermont leave leadership posts in the mostly white state because of harassment and threats. She’s also seen Black acquaintances move away from the progressive state that is home to Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream because they felt unwelcomed.

But the 45-year-old mother of two teenage boys feels called to continue fighting racism, which she’s done since moving to the state from southern California six years ago. Now, the former insurance professional is carrying on a broader fight for her community in her new leadership role as president of one of Vermont’s two NAACP branches.

“I really don’t feel like I have a choice,” said Schultz, who replaced another Black woman, Tabitha Moore, who decided not to run for reelection citing harassment. “We’re talking about our children.”

Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery and is remembered as being both 94% white and liberal. Missing from that image, though, are realities like the state's history of eugenics starting in the 1920s that led to sterilizations, said Pablo Bose, an associate geography professor at the University of Vermont.

A recent report from the University of Vermont continued to find racial disparities in traffic stops with Black drivers stopped at rate of 459 per 1,000 Black residents compared to 256 stops of white drivers per 1,000 white residents based on data from 2014-2019. The state also leads New England in racist propaganda, such as stickers, banners and flyers, from the white supremacist group Patriot Front, according to the Vermont Intelligence Center.

Since 2018, at least three Black female leaders in Vermont, including a state lawmaker, a town board member and the former head of the Rutland area NAACP branch, have left their roles in response to persistent harassment and sometimes violent threats. Democratic state Rep. Kiah Morris, who was the only Black woman in the Vermont state Legislature, resigned that year partially in response to harassment from a self-described white nationalist.

“What is clear is that the way we treat electoral politics, candidates and (elected officials) from marginalized identities in Vermont is unacceptable," Morris, now politics director for the advocacy group Rights & Democracy and creator of a documentary video project about racism in Vermont.

Anyone holding public office or high profile advocacy roles takes on risks as a public figure, but Black women face harassment and threats of violence aimed at them for both their gender and race. It's a challenge Black women leaders across the United States face and coincides with a surge of women, and women of color, running for office.