As I don my COVID facemask and walk down Brattleboro’s Main Street, I hear Black Lives Matters supporters’ calls for justice and see MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters seeking economic power and national pride. Though seeming to face off against each other, I see more similarities than differences in the messaging. Don’t we all want to live well in a place where we feel safe, proud, and a part of it? I like to think of the Brattleboro Food Co-op as a haven of safety and neutrality. To me, the Co-op has always been a place where we come together to meet friends, connect and share community – even during hard times. But is it? Can we be doing more to be an even stronger community connector and a truly welcoming space for all?
Vermont is the 17th worst state in the US for Black Americans to live in, based on income and education gaps, homeownership, and incarceration rates, as reported by the US Census American Community Survey (Zippia, 2020). Vermont is also ranked the third worst in our nation for black incarceration rates. Does our Co-op membership reflect the diversity of the place where it is located? Are we upholding our Co-op Ends Policies # 2. “A welcoming community marketplace” and # 7 “reasonable access to participation in the cooperative?”
I am white. I am also Jewish, a woman, my children are Latino, my friends black and brown, and I work with indigenous peoples, and students who learn differently. In our history, we have struggled, been marginalized and persecuted. In my neurotypical, educated whiteness, I can choose how I wish to present myself and like a chameleon, “fit in.” Not everyone has that luxury. However, fitting in is not enough.
Last week I moderated an international conversation with Native people sharing how COVID was affecting them – and it got me thinking. All around the world, it was the same story: underfunded healthcare, poor communication, human rights eroded by sudden legislation passed during lockdowns, and institutional racism. Yet, people were hopeful, resilient, working together to create new systems to meet their needs. It made me think about what we, as a community, can be doing together to support each other. We need to be more than just a single group coming together to advocate and protect ourselves. As Andean scholars say, “a leaf is nothing without the tree.” We cannot enclose ourselves in our comfortable rural isolation and pretend all is well. When one of us is OK, all of us are OK, and when one us of is not, we all feel it eventually.
We see this “not OK” in the form of crime, protest, hate, and the deaths of so many of our black and brown brothers and sisters by COVID – due not to their genetics, but to what we as a society have imposed on them: poverty, dangerous jobs, and poor healthcare access. We are all interconnected, and the wellbeing of others is a reflection of our wellbeing too. So it’s not about “fitting in,” it’s about working together with others, including others we may not know very well. And learning how to “fit with” and build not just a tree with a single leaf type, but an entire forest of different trees – one that is resilient, beautiful, and strong. Like the forests, we have here in Vermont – with birch, pine, maple, and beech.
And this brings us back to our Co-op, and the cooperative community we have here in Brattleboro, our home. And my attempt to understand the world we are presented with, at once ravaged by climate change, pandemics, brutality, and discourse. The Andean people call this time “Pachacuti” or world change, a global transformation predicted centuries ago. As we struggle each in our way with our personal history, shame, and injustices, we are one, single humanity. And places like the Co-op can be places of intersectionality where new memberships and alliances form. COVID and our turbulent times can shift us into a more compassionate, respectful way of living and give us a pause in our busy lives to reflect on how things can be different. I hope as a Board member to help make that happen. Like a leaf on a tree, we are all a part of and dependent upon each other. I believe we can work together to create a magnificent, healthy, diverse forest – and a vibrant and inclusive Co-op.
Zippia. (2020). Racial disparity in the US: worse states for Black Americans. Accessed June 30, 2020 from: https://www.zippia.com/advice/racial-disparity-worst-states/
By Tamara Stenn