Local government

Vacant equity job to remain unfilled in Vermont’s most diverse city

‘Structural racism and microaggressions’ pushed out former director, city manager says

by Isabella Infante, Community News Service

In June last year, Winooski’s first-ever equity director quietly left her position.

The job has gone unfilled since. And now city councilors want to drop funding for an equity director in the upcoming fiscal year’s budget, putting a “pause” on a role meant to address racial disparities in Vermont’s most racially diverse city. 

Instead, city officials say they need more antiracism and diversity training before putting  someone new in the position.

Yasamin Gordon became Winooski’s equity director in May 2021, a time when communities across Vermont and the nation were trying to respond to the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. According to city leaders, the position was created to increase resident participation in local government, serve marginalized communities, ease access to public services and collaborate with schools and the city council. 

Just over a year later, Gordon resigned. Elaine Wang, Winooski’s city manager, said Gordon, who is Black, struggled with “both structural racism and microaggressions” on the job and within city government.

“She faced certainly microaggressions from colleagues,” Wang said. City administration had “a fundamental lack of understanding of what her experience would be as a Black leader in an environment that hadn’t set expectations for inclusive behavior.”

When reached by phone earlier this month, Gordon declined to comment on the reasons for her departure, only sharing that she was “exploring other options.” She still lives in Vermont, she said, and now is listed as director of equity, inclusion and culture on the website of Opportunity Consulting, based in Washington, D.C.

Gordon added, “I think that there’s still a lot of work to do” in Winooski.

In Burlington, the first director of racial equity, inclusion and belonging followed a similar trajectory. Tyeastia Green, who served in that position for almost two years, resigned in February 2022, a few months before Gordon departed. Seven Days newspaper reported at the time that Green declined to discuss her reasons for moving on but told others that she felt city leadership failed to support her.

Winooski created the equity director position with a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston aimed at boosting workplace opportunities among the city’s diverse population, which includes a large number of new American residents. The Winooski School District is the only one in Vermont with a majority of non-white students.

The grant is flexible, Wang explained, allowing the city to decide the way it uses the money to address racial equity. The city comes up with a plan for Federal Reserve approval and, “once we incur the expenses, we get reimbursed,” Wang said.

City officials decided to use some of the money to pay an equity director — who then would be tasked with figuring out where the rest of the funds could go, Wang said. If the city doesn’t use the money for the director position, it can direct the funds to other initiatives, she said. “So it’s sitting there, allocated to Winooski.”

After Gordon resigned, Wang delayed hiring a replacement because, she said, the city needed more internal training related to racism awareness and social justice. 

“We needed to integrate equity into each person’s job and translate what that means operationally,” she said. 

With that training now taking place among city leadership and in city departments, Wang said she hopes to restore the equity director position in the 2025 fiscal year budget. 

The Winooski City Council met Jan. 23 to discuss and approve the proposed $9.24 million budget to present to city voters on Town Meeting Day next month. Councilor Aurora Hurd raised concerns about cutting the equity director position and made a motion to set aside $200,000 in federal pandemic relief funds “to support equity in FY24 and beyond.” 

The motion failed.

In a later interview, Hurd, who uses they and them pronouns, said they wanted to make sure residents know that city leaders view the equity job as important. “And I’m worried that cutting the position might send a signal that we aren’t dedicated to this work, or it’s not a priority,” they said.

Indra Acharya, a Winooski racial justice activist and board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, told council members that, in a city that prides itself on being the most diverse in the state, they should put money toward supporting that diversity.

“Does it need to happen through an equity director position, or can that happen to a different model? That is something we can collectively discuss as a community,” Acharya said in an interview in mid-February. “But I think it is very important for the city to be very intentional in spending money that is very specific to achieving racial equity, to committing to the mission of racial justice in the city.”

Acharya, who was instrumental in pushing the Winooski School District in 2020 to create an antiracism steering committee, said Gordon’s departure was not a surprise. 

“If you anticipate a person of color, particularly a Black woman, to come and solve the entire city’s racial injustice and inequities, then that is not going to work,” he said. “We need internal commitment. We need support mechanisms. We need empowerment of those people in those situations.”

Mayor Kristine Lott, in an update posted on the city’s website late last month, noted “concern” expressed by some Winooski residents about eliminating the position. During an interview this month, she referred questions about the equity director to Wang.

Lott also pointed to other areas of the budget that would contribute to equity in the city. She said some of those initiatives include continuing to pay a director focused on access to affordable housing and  a manager of children and family programs and funding translation and interpretation resources.

“Those roles have been able to increase equity and accessibility in our programming,” she said, “and so retaining them is supporting building more of that ground-up equity that’s going to make it easier when we refill that equity director role.”

To Hurd, these proposed measures do too little to address equity problems. “We are being reactive instead of proactive,” they said. “It feels short-sighted. It feels like we are saying what we have for now is enough. We know that it’s not enough. So we have a lot of work to do.”

Categories: Local government

8 replies »

  1. Winooski has been run by democrats and progressives for multiple decades.
    Likewise Burlington.
    “Systemic Racism” and “Structural Racism” require by definition, systems and structure.
    Winooski democrats and progressives have been in control of the systems and structures for multiple decades.

    • Does anyone really understand and can define, democrats and progressives included, Systemic and Structural Racism? Why do we need such a director, except as an excuse to spend money! Ridiculous!!

      • Thomas Sowell can and does define and explain the abstracts of racism in a number of his books. Try ‘Discrimination & Disparities’, tsowell.com

  2. equity is a bad concept and there should not be a need for this kind of position. government grows and grows in Vermont with no benefit to taxpayers

  3. Equity, diversity, antiracism topics were all devised by Progressives to divide citizens. Most definitely not to bring people together. It’s in their interest to keep citizens divided in order for Progressives to institute their dystopia world order. Regrettably, Vermont now resembles a Progressive cult that devalues everything it touches.

  4. The tide is turning because the Truth behind the lies and deception is being exposed. The “race” card is played every election cycle. The irony being the Left has perfected the scam so well they make billions off it by setting up murders of black citizens born and unborn. The Clintons imprisoned more black Americans than any other administration (as well as trafficked a good many of them from Haiti and other places.) Biden is indeed a racist by his own words. The Obama administration militarized police forces and set up murders and riots in black communities with his cohorts, the Clintons and the Bidens teeing it up perfectly. Race-baiting propaganda works and profitable to those willing to holdup the lie. The billions of dollars stolen and lives ruined is starting to sink in for those fooled and used by the vicious, corrupt, immoral, unethical government cartels. Take a look at the recent federal charges laid on Al Sharpton’s half-brother, Kenneth Glasgow, as a prime example.

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