Belonging in Brattleboro

“Brattleboro?  I heard there are gangs in Brattleboro.” My buddy had relocated to the Norwich area for her spouse’s new job, and she was still trying to find “her people.” Upon hearing a staid, affluent woman from the Upper Valley characterize Brattleboro this way, she nearly guffawed in the woman’s face. Brattleboro is assuredly quirky, gritty and pulsing with creativity—but gang ridden?  An acquaintance of mine on the Brattleboro PD will tell you, this town does have an ugly underbelly—just like every other major town along the Route 91 “drug” corridor. But I don’t think that’s what this woman was referencing. I couldn’t help thinking that the subtext of her comment was that Brattleboro is more economically and racially diverse than many other towns in Vermont. This makes some people nervous. It challenges our sense of who we are in relation to the Other.

Theorist Edward Said popularized the concept of Other in his book Orientalism, published in 1978, building on the work of French philosopher, Levinas and German philosopher, Hegel.  We define ourselves in relation to what we are not. Describing the Other helps define the self, but too often it involves dehumanizing or demonizing entire groups of people.

I cannot stop thinking about this concept of the Other, as I wrestle with the Trayvon Martin case. When I first read about the incident, in which a neighborhood watch member in a gated community shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager, I couldn’t let myself think very much about it. I was just too heartbroken imagining his parents’ suffering.  Then, I couldn’t seem to simultaneously grapple with all the slippery parts: race, age, gun violence, vigilantism and the proliferation of gated communities. It all seemed so very far away from me and so very different from my life here in Vermont. But it kept clawing its way back into my consciousness.  As details emerged, I began to understand some basic truths about this case despite its obvious complexities.

The transcripts of the conversations between George Zimmerman (the shooter) and the police indicate that Zimmerman thought that Martin did not belong there. Zimmerman quite simply didn’t like the look of him. Young Martin only clutched his cellphone and a bag of Skittles while walking to visit his father at his father’s fiancee’s townhouse, but Zimmerman interpreted his demeanor as menacing—a threat to his neighbors and to him. In Zimmerman’s view, Trayvon Martin was out of place, and his mere presence was frightening. He made Martin “the Other” in his internal narrative about who belonged where, and what people in his neighborhood should look like.

There have been a few incidents in my life in which I truly felt like the Other. Once, over 25 years ago, I went shopping with a friend in Harlem because we had heard there was an excellent jeweler near 125th St. It was quite an experience to step off the subway platform and not see a single other soul who physically looked like me. We certainly got our share of raised eyebrows, although it is hard to say whether it was my skin color or the fact that I sported a Mohawk and embarrassingly aqua parachute pants. What I do know is that I felt I had crossed a palpable, though invisible, line—I was in a place I didn’t seem to belong.

This sense of not-belonging was on my mind several weeks ago when I walked into Brattleboro’s representative town meeting and saw the assembled body with new eyes.  Our elected town meeting representatives are overwhelmingly white and of a certain age. There is nothing inherently sinister about this; anyone can run for a seat. You get signatures from your neighbors, get your name on the ballot and you’re in.  We never seem to have enough citizens who are willing to run. But it was still startling to look around the gymnasium and begin to comprehend that, despite the mix of people and political stripes, the representatives as a whole did not physically represent my diverse district.  It made me wonder if town meeting has become a place where some folks don’t feel like they belong.

There are citizens in this town actively working on the issue of inclusion in our political system. Ken Schneck’s work to expand voter participation is laudable.  I was also impressed with the workshop that was held right before town meeting this year to instruct members on Robert’s Rules of Order, but would I have the courage or the desire to walk into a gymnasium in which nobody looked like me?

How do we make our town meeting as inclusive and democratic as Alexis DeTocqueville believed it was?  The French political thinker visited the United States in the 1830s and was amazed that so much of the community could share political decision making through New England town meetings. By 1800 even men who didn’t own property were able to participate, though women were not yet included. He thought town meeting was an incredibly egalitarian and direct system of decision making. We must strive to keep it so.

If we know each other through shared work—wrestling with important issues that face our town, we are less likely to see the “Other.” Stretching our idea of who can be a friend or acquaintance is a culturally enriching experience, and sometimes—as in the case of Trayvon Martin—it becomes a matter of life or death.



Cultivating Civic Virtue

Last week I received a worried call from a dear friend early on a Sunday morning. She wanted to make sure we had not been victims of the arson and vandalism spree in the greater South Main Street area of Brattleboro. The perpetrators set fires, damaged property, and scrawled lewd and violent graffiti. After my initial concern about my neighbors who work at the businesses affected, my thoughts ran to: who would take the time and energy to do such a thing—and why?  I did not imagine a 13, 14 and 15 year old would be arrested (although perhaps the vandalism at BAMS should have been a clue).

In the days immediately following this violent and senseless destruction (and the subsequent arrest of three area youths), I heard a familiar refrain bubbling up in the community: where were the schools? Why didn’t the teachers catch their propensity for violence? What are those schools teaching, anyway?  Where were the schools? 

The more immediate and salient question is: Where were the parents? Parenting is the hardest job there is, bar none. There are so many responsibilities in addition to just meeting your children’s basic needs, but I’m not talking about the larger issue of the daily sacrifices you make for your children. I’m not asking folks to be super parents. Hey, just show up for work.  I don’t know the particulars of the children in question, but I know I was not allowed to prowl the streets unrestrained and unchaperoned at 1 a.m. when I was thirteen or even fifteen.  This demonstrates an astonishing lack of parental engagement in the lives of these kids.

In speaking with a friend about this alarming event, he revealed to me his strategy for trying to keep his children on the straight and narrow. He intentionally introduces his children to every single neighbor, business owner, civic leader, colleague and friend in his circle of acquaintance.  He told me, “When they walk out that door, I want them to know that everyone knows who they are.” He wants them to feel watched and cared for and held by the community at large. They are not free agents; they represent their entire family, and they are part of something larger than themselves. In essence, through his simple and yet highly purposeful actions, he instills in his children a sense of civic virtue.

Without this sense of civic virtue, the Founders feared that their entire political experiment would fall apart in just a few short generations. Referencing classical Roman republicanism, the Revolutionary generation believed the fledgling country should be founded on the ideals of duty and virtuous citizenship. As historian Bernard Bailyn has written, “The preservation of liberty rested on the…vigilance and moral stamina of the people.” The citizens had a duty, an imperative, to employ their civic virtue to preserve and perpetuate the ideals of the young nation.

We still have this duty today.  As Jefferson wrote, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” There is a tendency today to dismiss the Founders because of their own personal failings and moral shortcoming (think Jefferson and Sally Hemmings or Franklin’s skirt-chasing). But their ideas about civic virtue are transcendent, and they can and should guide us today.

The Founders envisioned as the cornerstone of republican civic education, the civic instruction that children would receive in the home. Historian Linda K. Kerber coined a phrase “republican motherhood” for this concept 30 years ago in her book, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Patriots’ sons and daughters were taught to uphold the ideals of republicanism, and to embrace civic duty, so that they could pass it along to each subsequent generation.

The Founders recognized that women had a vital role in the education of engaged, virtuous citizens. Although their rights were extremely limited, and they were expected to exist in a separate domestic sphere—apart from their politically engaged husbands—the concept of republican motherhood imbued the traditional women’s sphere with a gravity of purpose.  It connected the home to the larger body politic. Then as now, parents have a critical role in holding the social fabric together.

Despite my earlier incredulity about the blaming of schools, there is also an important role for schools in this vital work. Every teacher I know truly understands the importance of teaching a full social curriculum to their students.  Teaching civic engagement (and all that true citizenship entails) is vitally important, not just to the smooth operation of a classroom, but in the functioning of the entire community.  Because of pressures imposed by No Child Left Behind, many teachers  feel they give lip service to social curriculum but cannot fully embrace it. Teachers, and schools as a whole, need the community to support a social curriculum that teaches, among other things, civic virtue.

Schools can’t do it all. As parents, we must understand that saying yes to some things (meeting unattainable NCLB benchmarks), means saying no to other things (furthering the ideals of the republic).  As a community, we must decide whether we’ve said “yes” to the right things. As parents, we must show up for work, so our kids know they can count on us when their own moral compass falters.  The democratic experiment hangs in the balance.