Conference focuses attention on racial diversity

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(Host) Community leaders and advocates met in Burlington Monday to discuss racial diversity and discrimination in Vermont.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Workshops at the conference workshops dealt with diversity and discrimination in business and health care, but much of the day centered on how to assure the state’s corrections and justice systems aren’t racially biased. One way is to hire more minorities to work in those fields.

Babbette Boyd is the only African American prosecutor in Vermont. She is an assistant state’s attorney in Chittenden County. Boyd says there needs to be an effort to recruit more minority prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and police officers. She says there’s a great deal of discussion about diversity, but not much to show for it yet.

(Boyd) “I think that Vermont does want to talk about it, but they haven’t made, in all these years, any real progress.”

(Zind) Panelists at the conference said a few efforts are underway to hire minorities. Recently the Burlington Police Department received a federal grant to recruit minorities as officers.

The conference keynote speaker was Naomi Tutu, daughter of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, the recipient of the 1984 Nobel Peace Price. Tutu stressed the importance of exploring differences and looking past stereotypes to overcome racism.

(Tutu) “Why is my friend, as my son says, ‘pink,’ and I’m brown? We don’t need to stop from asking those questions, because in asking those questions, they are saying ‘I’m interested in your story.’ And it’s only when we know the story that we can truly call ourselves celebrating diversity.”

(Zind) Organizers say this was the first conference in Vermont to devoted to racial issues. Babbette Boyd says the state is experiencing growing pains as it adjusts to a more diverse population.

(Boyd) “Growth is painful and you have to stretch beyond your limits and I think that’s where Vermont is right now.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Burlington.

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