New Working Group Creates Hope for Positive Transformation in Vermont Schools

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October 21, 2019

Contact:  Kiah Morris, Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Vermont Schools kiah@voicesforvtkids.org  – 802.267.4160

Montpelier, Vermont– In accordance with Act 1, a recent law designed to help tackle bias, discrimination, and inequity in Vermont schools, the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools (VCESES) appointed 11 members to the newly formed Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group this week.
The group is unique in a state that has struggled to address a lack of diversity across its landscape, being comprised primarily of individuals representing historically marginalized communities. Members of the group will review educational standards and policies in Vermont schools and create suggestions for improvement that may be adopted by the state board of education to be used by local schools. The appointees will be supported by VCESES through their journey and will be able to collaborate with communities on the ground thus channeling stories and concerns to the working group.

Vermont has one of the highest per-pupil spending rates in the nation, but also one of the least diverse teacher populations, with the most recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics indicating that over 97% of teachers in Vermont are white. Youth and social justice activists have long pointed out that students from historically marginalized communities have not had the same representative experience in their education as their white peers, resulting in inequities in their school experience and disparities in educational outcomes. “For far too long children of color and other marginalized identities have had to endure not only the erasure of many of their histories, but also often times the negative portrayal of them when they are brought up in the educational system,” notes Asma Elhuni, Lead Organizer for the United Valley Interfaith Project and Working Group appointee.

Embracing the perspective of Vermont residents whose voices are not usually heard was a central aim of the law. Appointees reflect the diversity of racial and ethnic groups across the state and include community members representing Abenaki, LGBTQ+, and individuals with disabilities.  Two of the working group members are youth, an indication of the law’s conscious decision to elevate student voices. Says Bruce Pandya, student at U-32 and working group appointee: “I think that the Working Group is an important first step to righting the historical wrongs in education. For this to succeed, students in the education system currently have to be at the table.”

In addition to students, the working group also includes one faculty appointee, and is designed to be accountable to the communities it represents. Working Group Appointee Cynthia Reyes, Associate Professor at the University of Vermont, highlights the collaborative and collective nature of the work: “As a representative from higher education, I know that I, alone, can’t contribute without drawing upon the ethnic studies expertise and support of other colleagues who have been doing this arduous work in their own departments, colleges, or institutions.”

For many, this decision to center the lives, experiences, and histories of people of color, indigenous, and other historically marginalized communities has the potential to be a transformative step for both the public education system as well as the community at large. “I am honored and excited to be a part of a team project that will help dismantle institutionalized racism in our schools… [I’m] looking forward to moving in the direction of positive transformation,” says Elhuni.

The new members appointed by VCESES to the working group include:

Maxwell Barrows, Montpelier:  

Max is the Outreach Director for Green Mountain Self-Advocates, a position he has held since 2007. He mentors youth and adults with developmental disabilities to speak up for themselves and become leaders. Max connects with people on all levels advocating for true-inclusion of people with developmental disabilities. In his work, he advances the message that when you meet an individual with a disability, presume competence. He received a White House Champions of Change award for this work in 2015 and Champion of Equal Opportunity award from the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities in 2019. Max is an accomplished self-advocate from Vermont who served as a board member for Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered from 2008 to 2016. On a personal level, Max has a very high interest in extreme weather and he likes to watch college and professional sports

Celilo Bauman-Swain, Champlain Valley Union High School:

Celilo Bauman-Swain is a 16-year old sophomore attending CVU. She resides with her mom and sister in Charlotte, VT. Since the age of 4, Celilo has been playing cello. At the moment she started, she hadn’t yet been diagnosed with a hearing loss, but continued her studies, and still continues to study, her cello.  Throughout Celilo’s musical journey, she has been given opportunities that allowed her to diversify the lens through which she saw the world from her small-town home; playing in chamber groups where she was the only one speaking English, or traveling to different places, wasn’t possible without empathy or communication through a neutral ground. These experiences taught Celilo the importance of these values, and continue to enrich her life to this day. In addition, she was drawn to advocacy through her experience in music, where growth was encouraged and not offend-able. At times when Celilo was denied help or access, she had the privilege of communicating her distress to her allies, not only for herself, but for others being taken advantage of through similar systems of oppression. Celilo hopes to take this opportunity in being a part of the VCESES working group to continue to advocate for herself and others.

Infinite Culcleasure, Burlington

A product of the nation’s largest public school system, Infinite’s journey from NYC to Vermont has lasted for about three decades now. After almost seven years of grassroots organizing with families in the Burlington and Winooski school districts, he is now transitioning to a more boring role in education policy reform, and a fairly recent, vertiginous identity as a father of an almost-two-year-old toddler.

Asma Elhuni, White River Junction:

Asma Elhuni is a proud Muslim Immigrant from Africa who came to the United States as a child. Asma taught kindergarten and second grade in an Islamic school. She was also the community outreach director for the Council on American Islamic Relations. Asma has a degree in Political Science from Georgia State University. As the recipient of the university’s 2016 MLK Humanitarian Award, Asma tries to listen and to uplift the voices of groups oftentimes marginalized by society. She has organized in areas affecting People of color including immigration, gentrification, and anti-Muslim racism. She helped change policy in Atlanta to allow Muslim women keep their hijabs on in jail when arrested. Asma moved to the Upper Valley two years ago and is currently working as Lead Organizer for United Valley Interfaith Project organizing around immigration and economic justice.

Mark Hage, Montpelier:

Mark Hage lives in Montpelier.  He was a counselor for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in San Francisco and a co-editor of its national journal on draft and military law in the early 1980s.  After finishing a graduate program in education at U.C. Berkeley, he taught writing, literature and history at Northfield Junior-Senior High School in Vermont from 1983-93.  Mark holds a B.A. from Colgate University and an M.A. from Middlebury College.  Mark is currently a union advocate for the Vermont-National Education Association.  He has been active in peace and social justice issues for more than four decades.

Mara Iverson, Montpelier:

Mara Iverson is Director of Education at Outright Vermont, a statewide LGBTQ+ youth advocacy organization. She has worked at universities in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Vermont and has 15 years of LGBTQ+ advocacy and education experience. Mara also incorporates advocating for racial justice and understanding and managing implicit bias in her role at Outright.

Barbra Marden, Shelburne:

Originally from Uganda, Barbra Marden lived in Italy for several years before coming to the United States in 2001. She holds a Master’s of Public Administration (MPA) from the University of Vermont and is fully engaged in the Shelburne community and school system.  Barbra volunteered in the Shelburne Community School to work directly with children in grades 1-4 while teaching the Hands-on Nature Program. She also participates in the mentoring program.  Barbra is a member of the Town of Shelburne Social Services Committee and serves as the Membership Chair and on the Board of her congregation and is a representative for the Champlain Valley School District Board (CVSD).

Bruce Pandya, U-32 High School:

Bruce is a student at U-32 and is very active with the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools.  At U-32 he is part of the Social Justice Club and is currently doing a project on the global resurgence of authoritarianism.  In 2018 Bruce worked on a project focused on U.S Foreign Policy in Latin America which culminated with a  presentation at the Hubbard Library in Montpelier and a compilation of his research with primary resources which he hopes to turn into a book one day.  Bruce is an avid reader and writer

Cynthia Reyes, Williston:

Cynthia Reyes is a faculty member in the College of Education & Social Services at the University of Vermont where she teaches in the Education for Cultural and Linguistic Diversity (ECLD) Minor program. She also teaches a university-required race and racism in the U.S. course and service-learning courses. Reyes is currently involved with community-engaged research especially with families who are New American refugees. She serves on University and college committees related to the university required diversity courses. Her research and service passions include social justice, inclusion, and equity and emergent bilinguals, digital literacies, and educational policy and language. Prior to higher education, Reyes was a classroom bilingual (Spanish/English) teacher for the Chicago Public Schools and she also taught English as a Second Language in adult education. In her free time, Reyes enjoys reading, traveling, and cooking.

Vera Sheehan, Westtown:

Vera Sheehan, Director, Vermont Abenaki Artists Association (VAAA). Culture bearer, artist, educator, and activist Vera Longtoe Sheehan has been presenting educational programs at museums, historic sites, and educational institutions for over twenty years. Her BA in Museum Studies and Native American Studies (MA candidate in Heritage Preservation) from SUNY Empire State allows Vera to bridge the gap between the Abenaki community and mainstream society by creating and delivering educational programs, museum exhibitions, and events that preserve and interpret the vibrant culture of her people.

Miakoda Schultz, Bennington:

Miakoda Schultz is a mother of two boys and an advocate for all children.  She grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood as a biracial child and knew from an early age that she wanted to advocate for and with people who felt had no voice.  At the age of 12, Miakoda joined the movement to demand that the then governor of Arizona recognize Martin Luther King Jr., day and participated in nonviolent protests, marches, and phone banking.  Soon after, she launched the Black Culture Club at her predominantly white high school and has been involved in social justice issues ever since.   She currently lives in Bennington and is active in the school district where she is raising her two boys.

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