Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale: At this critical moment in history, be brave, little state.
This commentary is by state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden.
In early August, I married the love of my life on the shores of Lake Champlain in a beautiful celebration that spanned our Hindu, Jewish, Congregationalist and French Canadian upbringings.
My husband Jacob’s father was a prominent Republican dairy farmer in Charlotte and his mother grew up speaking French in the Northeast Kingdom. My Indian immigrant father and Jewish American mother ran an Irish pub in Los Angeles.
It was surreal and special to see our families and chosen community bridge political, cultural, and social divides for the one thing that makes us the most brave — love.
This gathering was made all the more meaningful because it revealed the best of Vermont’s and our nation’s values against the backdrop of great discord and division. According to the U.S. Census, only 10 percent of marriages in the country are multiracial, and recent reporting in The Atlantic highlights that nearly half of Americans would be upset if their children married someone of a different political party. This figure is up from just 5 percent in 1960, and reveals a growing cultural divide that goes beyond policy disagreements.
I wish that we were somehow the exception in Vermont, and that hate did not grow in our rocky soil. But the rise of groups like “Vermonters for Vermont” and efforts to narrow the diversity and honesty of our educational curriculum is revealing a nativism and xenophobia that we must acknowledge and uproot.
If our state is going to grow socially and demographically, we need to develop, attract and retain a diversity of talent and perspectives in the state. That means widening the circle of Vermonters who share our core values, rather than closing ourselves off to others’ lived experiences and new ideas.
The “us versus them” narrative is being driven into the heart of our education system under the guise of attacking critical race theory, a field of legal study that seeks to identify and address the root causes of racial bias in the application of the law. A statewide tour is attracting small but passionate crowds who are instead celebrating white pride and making false and painful statements about our nation’s history, such as saying to applause: “Colored people stayed in the South because they weren’t that bad treated.”
Most disappointing of all, a new colleague of mine in the Senate, Russ Ingalls of Essex/Orleans, is making chilling McCarthy Era-esque statements about our educators, saying he would be “publicizing the names of teachers whose politics can be discerned from what they say in the classroom.” Recently, that threat was deployed against a teacher in Irasburg who offered students the opportunity to share their gender pronouns if that made them more comfortable in the classroom.
Attempts at the erasure of our history and silencing of our educators will only hurt our communities and our ability to address the issues we face today. This is not what we stand for. The lessons that our children are taught in our schools will impact the decisions they make in the future.
It is our job as a state to arm them with the ability to seek truth, compassion, and honest introspection not just for careers, but for a lifetime of deep relationships and true happiness in a multicultural democracy. While we cannot undo the wrongs of history, we can learn from them and commit ourselves to a different, more equitable, and more welcoming path forward.
We are already the whitest state in the country, and these sentiments may be coming from a fractional minority of residents, but they have an outsized impact on the public perception of Vermont and the time spent dispelling falsehoods rather than helping our students through a pandemic. Giving the best education to our young people means making them open, empathetic and honest as they strive to be ready for citizenship, college and the changing realities of our nation.
Underneath all of it, these political forces are trying to divide us because it allows them to take over school boards and governance systems, and then take away the freedom and resources owed to our teachers to provide an honest, world-class education for our students. Fomented anger and division, if unchecked, will ultimately lead to lower school budgets, fewer curricular offerings, and students who feel more isolated for holding marginalized identities.
When Jacob and I looked each other in the eyes and said, “I do,” it was made all the richer by knowing and embracing each other’s differences, and having our beloved Vermont community embrace our love. In our histories, we had victims and perpetrators of injustice, ancestors who may have frowned upon our union, and strongly held beliefs that could tear us apart unless we examined them and recommitted to our common values. We hope we are fortunate enough to raise children here who can celebrate all of the pieces of who they are as Vermonters.
Choosing to hold all of these truths and still love each other is the bravest act of all. So I ask of you, be vocal about your support for our educators, center love and courage in your conversations, and do not be a bystander in a moment of false division. At this critical moment in history, I ask that we be brave, little state.