Winooski: A pioneer in diversity and learning

On March 15, Governor Scott took a courageous and prescient action. He wrote the U.S. Department of State requesting they triple the number of refugees sent to Vermont next year.

If honored, the number of new Vermonters would total about 300, a manageable and beneficial influx in a shrinking population.

Governor Scott wrote, “Refugees are an integral part of our efforts to grow Vermont’s economy, which include a workforce development strategy to attract new workers and meet the demographic challenges faced by a declining population.”

His spokesperson added, “Governor Scott is committed to making Vermont a more welcoming place and growing our workforce. The refugee program has already enhanced our communities in many ways, and as we rebuild and recover from the pandemic, welcoming more will help us build a stronger and more inclusive Vermont.”

And we’ll have to rethink our tired “native Vermonter” moniker. Apart from being overly self-reverential, it’s inaccurate. A “native Vermonter” would most likely be a member of the Abenaki Nation or another indigenous tribe. The Abenaki People never left, continuing to honor and steward their land and their traditions, even as they were ignored by the influx of Anglo-Saxons moving north from the colonies to acquire land, Quebecois coming south to start farms and work in Winooski’s mills, Italians seeking work in Barre and Rutland’s quarries, and Irish fleeing the famine, and more recently, by the back-to-the-landers seeking a simpler way of life.

My grandmother, Elise Couture, who was our family’s revered matriarch and lived to 101, came with her new husband Clovis from Quebec to start a new life in Morrisville. They started and ran a successful transportation business and won the local school bus contract. Her son, my stepfather Emile, was the chauffeur for the Trapp Family Singers North American tours and drove a specially made “stretch” Clovis built that accommodated the whole family.

In talking about how she and her husband, the immigrants of her time, were accepted, Grammie once joked to us about the short-lived Klan in Morrisville.

“They’d dress up in their silly sheets and ride around town looking for Black folk  and Jews but there weren’t any. Catholics were a target elsewhere, but in Morrisville we all knew each other and relied on one another in our businesses. They finally gave up and went home. So silly… ”

Today, in inviting refugees to Vermont, it’s one thing to welcome newcomers. It’s quite another to lay the groundwork socially, culturally, economically, and civically in our communities for them to feel at home and thrive.

In 1984, when we ran Resolution in the Old Chase Mill, we accepted an offer from the recently formed Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to hire “new Americans.” Believing it was the right thing to do and receiving a modest subvention for their pay, we hired four.

Several weeks later, a knife fight broke out on the assembly floor. After we intervened and called the Program, they were as surprised as we were, explaining that they were all from Asia. Naively, we had put a Laotian next to a Cambodian. Neither were “Asian.” They were from distinct warring countries. It was early days, but we all learned a lesson.

In order for us to welcome new cultures into our own, we must be willing to extend ourselves, and reach out to understand and bridge whatever differences we encounter. We must find the balance between making them “one of us” and learning to understand and celebrate their differentness.

If we’re to honor the Governor’s commitment to growing Vermont by expanding its diversity and welcoming newcomers, we must follow through and develop a culture and institutional infrastructure that integrates them into our communities.

This is happening right under our eyes today in Winooski and deserves our full attention. The Winooski School District (WSD) is in the vanguard of showing how we can best help New Americans become New Vermonters.

Since the late 1800s, Winooski has been a hub for in-migration. The three red brick mills along the River’s falls attracted French workers from Canada and Irish workers from further south.

Generations later, Winooski is the only minority-majority school district in Vermont, with 51% of its students Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). That makes it our most diverse city. And its residents are three times more likely to live in poverty than other Vermonters.

Having said this, according to the libertarian Cato Institute (formerly the Charles Koch Foundation), “The per capita cost of providing welfare to immigrants is substantially less than the per capita cost of providing welfare to native-born Americans.” Furthermore a study reported in the Washington Post indicates that, on average, refugees are self-sufficient and contributing to the U.S. economy within seven years.

The WSD has just created the Heart of Winooski (HOW) Foundation to use philanthropic dollars to leverage its modest community tax-based revenue to develop resources to benefit all of Winooski’s citizens. The HOW Foundation has already gotten a major gift to start them off but to realize the dream, other citizens, businesses, and foundations will need to step up.

I recently spent a virtual hour with Sean McMannon, the Superintendent of the Winooski School District and architect of its visionary plans. Naively, I had assumed that the measure of diversity in a school system was the number of languages spoken – some 20.  But the metrics are much more complex. Imagine a diversity of diets, dress, medicines, gender relationships, and religious traditions. What can an institution honor and what conformity must be required of a community of learners to function properly?

Not by chance, the Community College of Vermont (CCV) also has its main campus in Winooski. Like WSD, CCV has been a pioneer in offering flexible learning options to diverse learners since they began.

Why must we care about and learn from this bold vision in Winooski?

The underlying rationale behind both are an intrinsic understanding that the whole family’s security and well-being are integral to the child’s. Hungry, homeless, sick children don’t learn. In both cases, the Winooski vision understands that the well-being of the family is integral to the success of the learner. The HOW Foundation’s Capital Project integrates health-care and nutrition into the design of the new educational facility.

If we’re to honor the Governor’s commitment to grow Vermont by expanding its diversity and welcoming immigrants from around the world, we must follow through and develop a culture and institutional framework that respects and integrates them into their new communities.

This must start in our public institutions: our public schools (in which I include early essential education from birth forward), our public colleges, our hospitals and clinics, churches, government agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations.

In defiance of what we sometimes imagine, Vermont has always been diverse and will become more so in the years ahead. As Europe is learning today, there’s more to growing a diverse society than just admitting migrants.

As in any new relationship, both parties must bridge differences. Those in a position to do so must extend a helping hand, be patient, offer resources and be willing to integrate new traditions that enrich everyone’s lives.

We have much to learn from the bold vision in Winooski. It will take a partnership of our community institutions to get this right and, as we do, all our lives will be richer.

One has only to look at the wealth of cuisines, music and dance performances, art exhibits, and small businesses that have blossomed around Vermont to appreciate the cultural vitality and economic gain that refugees bring us in exchange for a warm welcome and opportunity.