Executive Directory of Racial Equity, Xusana Davis. Courtesy photo.
The State's First Executive Director of Racial Equity
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine A little over a year ago, Xusana Davis was hired by the State of Vermont to do something that more than a few people have called “humanly impossible.”
Davis, 31, is the state's first executive director of racial equity. In a state that is approximately 94 percent white, her job is not to undo 400 years of racism; it is not even to bring more diversity to state government.
Instead, it is to bring our state government closer to equity — so all Vermonters have equal access to state services. And that alone is a daunting task.
Creating a new cabinet-level post is a big deal.
It all started back when Vermont was dealing with “the Kiah Morris situation,” as State Representative Kevin “Coach” Christie (D-Windsor 4-2), the chair of the Human Rights Commission, called it.
Morris, a Black woman who represented Bennington in the Vermont House of Representatives, was so tormented and threatened by racists in her hometown that she eventually quit the Legislature.
“So we were dealing with our own ugliness of racism, front and center,” Christie continued. “Having Xusana here has helped us move the pendulum in the right direction. It's been swinging back and forth for 400 years, and it has points where it stops and makes progress, and we're now at one of those points.”
The issue of racism is boiling over in Vermont — as it is in most of the nation — following the wide release of a deeply disturbing video.
Through the medium of cell phone footage, most of the country was appalled to see a White Minneapolis policeman slowly choking the life out of a Black man on the street by kneeling on his neck.
Nearby, other officers smiled and did nothing. George Floyd's death became the symbol for so many Black men and women killed by brutal policing, and the country finally erupted over the injustice of it all.
“We all saw it,” Christie said. “We watched another human being's life taken away by someone we had given the responsibility to protect us. That's why that particular system of government is under the most magnification right now.”
Ever since this very public death, people from all over Vermont have been marching to support the movement called Black Lives Matter.
It has not been easy.
Photo: Executive Directory of Racial Equity, Xusana Davis. Courtesy photo.
The state painted Black Lives Matter on the street outside the Statehouse in Montpelier, only to have it covered in graffiti overnight; a Windsor principal was placed on administrative leave because of a critical social media post, and it drew the ire of national literary figures because her punishment appeared to stifle freedom of speech; a postmaster in Rutland has been accused of social media racism; Burlington declared racism a public health emergency; “art walls” in Swanton had to be taken down because peaceful scenes of racial integration — a Black hand entwined with a White hand — were being routinely whitewashed out; Burlington just painted Black Lives Matter on Main Street; Rutland High School alumni, students and community members want school officials to remove the name and arrowhead imagery of the school’s Native American mascot citing “appropriation of Native American culture;” Asian restaurants are being vandalized; Confederate flags are flying on buildings and from the back of trucks; you can see Black Lives Matter signs posted on lawns all over Vermont; the Winooski School Board voted unanimously to accept eight demands from a group of current and former students aimed at addressing a culture of “long-standing racism” in the school system. The list goes on.
In the midst of all this, calmly and with great intent, Davis has taken inclusion as her primary goal.
And by inclusion, she means equity for Black people, Latino people, LGBTQIA people and people with disabilities.
For just one example, while English is the national language and the most widely spoken language in Vermont, did you know there are more than 10 other languages spoken here?
What if you were a recent immigrant who has not yet mastered English, but who needs a driver's license? Maybe the state needs to provide forms in other languages?
This is called having a “language access policy,” and it is just one of the many issues Davis has taken on.
“The 10 most commonly spoken languages in Vermont, aside from English, are Swahili, Mai Mai, Somali, Nepali, Kirundi, French, Spanish, Arabic, Burmese, Vietnamese, and I would add Chinese in there,” Davis said. “And having a language access policy, having a translation policy, seems novel to a lot of people. But in other jurisdictions that have a multicultural contingent, this is considered basic. Basic! And so it's not just in service of people who are already here. I mean, it certainly is, but it's also in service of all the prospective Vermonters who we claim we want to attract.”
A language access policy does not mean translating every government document into every spoken or read language, Davis said.
“But if you want information about driver's licenses, food stamps, school enrollment, you name it, it should be accessible,” she said. “I'm not necessarily saying that every single language that every individual speaks needs to be translated. But I am saying that if we know that we have 10 or 11 languages that are spoken by a large number of people, then it's just part of serving an entire state of people.”
Racism is built into our governing systems, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes with malicious intent, and sometimes unnoticed. But it is always felt by the people at whom it is aimed.
“For a simple, national example,” Davis said, “we have disparities in sentencing for rock cocaine and powder cocaine. Chemically they are the same substance. But rock cocaine is more commonly associated with the Black community and powder cocaine with the White community. So the sentences for powder cocaine were far more lenient than the sentences for rock cocaine. The demographic of the people who use them determines the sentencing.”
An early example, Davis said, was seen when the 15th Amendment was enacted after the Civil War, and Black men got the right to vote.
“Then they came up with the concept of felon disenfranchisement, or taking the vote away from you if you are guilty of certain crimes,” Davis said. “This is documented. This isn't anecdotal. They said, 'Okay, which are the crimes that we convict Black men of more often? And which other crimes do we convict White men over more often? The ones where we can pick Black men more often are now felonies, to make sure that they lose the right to vote.' So, for example, the crime of wife beating was more commonly associated with — it's not to say that they did it more, but it was more associated with — Black men. But murder was more associated with White people. So, in a lot of jurisdictions around the country, you would lose your vote for beating your wife, but not for killing her.”
Giving Black men the right to vote meant that racism would be institutionalized in other ways, Davis said.
“Now you have the right to vote, without recognizing that we manipulated the surrounding systems to deny you a right that we claim to have given you on paper,” Davis said. “So that's how racism has changed. It's gone from having, you know, explicit signs that say you sit at the back of the bus, to instead having systems that target you in much more insidious ways. That's why we have voting districts that looked like bizarre puzzle pieces, because we want to make sure we include this neighborhood, but not this one.”
Davis, who has a law degree, came to Vermont from New York City, where she was most recently the director of health and housing strategic initiatives for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She wanted to come to Vermont even before her new job was created.
The Senate Committee on Government Operations began creating Davis's job several years ago.
“We knew we had to do something about systemic racism in state government,” said State Senator Jeanette White (D-Windham), the committee chair.
They looked at elections, law enforcement and a host of other state government processes and procedures. They decided that many were discriminatory.
One case they looked at involved a Somali man who wanted to be a Vermont police officer.
“We had two young men from Somalia who had lived in refugee camps and now were living in Vermont,” White said. “One said his brother really wanted to be a law enforcement officer. He was an intelligent, kindhearted guy. He had passed the physical test but was stopped by the written exam. It was testing how you would act in certain situations. The choices were close together, but because English is such a bizarre language, the nuances were so nuanced that he wasn't sure which one to pick. He knew exactly what actions had to be taken, but he couldn't figure out from the language which was the right answer. That eliminates people from a different culture from serving us. I'm sure there are other examples all over the place.”
Working closely with the administration, White's committee designed a five-person Racial Equity Advisory Panel.
“We figured we needed to start someplace,” White said. “It made sense to start with the state system, which is what we have control over.”
After the legislation was passed, panel members were appointed — one by the governor, one by the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, one by the Speaker of the House, one by the Human Rights Commission, and one by the Senate Committee on Committees.
The panel's first job was to find an executive director. The Agency of Human Resources created a job description and advertised it. The job turned out to be unique.
“We were told that applicants came from all over the country,” White said. “We were told that lots of states have diversity directors, but this is not trying to increase diversity in state government. It's about changing the systems in place that produce discrimination. This may be the first position in the country that actually looks at systemic racism in state government.”
The panel vetted the applicants; the top choices were sent to Governor Phil Scott. He hired Davis.
“Her first job is to inventory what our systems are and work with the agencies and departments to change the systems,” White said. “It was important that the position be a cabinet member so she has the ear of the governor and the authority to do things. There are going to be some agencies and departments that resist change, and she's going to have the support of the governor.”
Davis's position is attached to the Agency of Administration. It is designed to last only five years.
“But there's no doubt that the sunset will be removed and it will be a permanent position,” White said.
White said she was delighted with Davis's work.
“I was blown away by her,” White said. “Her background is very impressive. She was confident and scared and excited to get into it but not really sure what she was getting into. She's calm and thoughtful, but to the point. She doesn't mince words, but she chooses her words carefully. She inspires thoughtfulness instead of being inflammatory. She's very articulate, and she tells you the way it is. And she's funny. She has a great sense of humor. For example, her name is spelled Xusana. I was told it was pronounced 'Zoosana.' But she said, 'Oh no, it's Susana, just like the song.' She's a real down-to-earth person. I don't think there's any artifice. There's nothing about her that isn't genuine. I thought the governor made a good decision.”
Andrea Brett is the chair of the Racial Equity Advisory Panel. She says that Davis is definitely “up to the task.”
“Xusana is fabulous,” Brett said. “She is amazing. She comes with the experience and the knowledge. From my perspective as an Abenaki here in Vermont, she's humble. She doesn't come in with the attitude that she knows it all. She is confident in holding her space and having her voice. She is willing to learn. She's poised, articulate, knowledgeable as a woman of color, and knowledgeable from her work experience. It is easy to get pulled in many directions. That said, Xusana herself is pretty good at setting her limits. It's a big job. We as the panel we feel she's up for the job and we are there to support her as she brings racial equity within the government.”
Right now Davis has a mandate, a title and the governor's ear, but no actual agency to be the executive director of. She does not even have a secretary, an assistant or a budget. The panel has a budget which it uses to pay Davis and support her work. The Legislature is now looking at writing legislation to provide her with funding for a data analyst and/or a policy analyst.
“It's a Herculean job, and the state is going to need to very intentionally find ways to support that office in the work,” Christie said. “I think the state of Vermont was very lucky to draw Xusana into that position. There was a very high expectation in the enactment of the position — to help mitigate systemic racism in every institution of state government. That's a pretty tall order, so to speak. It required a special, unique skill set, as well as a very unique individual in order to take on that mandate. We as a state were very fortunate in finding Xusana. In light of the magnitude of the job, she is meeting that head-on and doing it oh so well.”
Curtiss Reed, Jr, the Executive Director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, hosted a welcoming party for Davis when she arrived in Vermont.
“We wanted to make sure she knew she had a support network already in place when she arrived,” Reed said. “So I held a breakfast meeting, and 50 people showed up to welcome her. Some were state legislators, representatives from NAACP, Jeanette White, gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Holcombe, activists from Hartford, Bennington, Rutland. It was largely an introduction to let Xusana know there were people supporting her work, and also to help her acclimate to Vermont. It was like a Welcome Wagon. Many people come to Vermont and leave within 18 months because they haven't built a social network. I wanted her to know she has a built-in social network. This was before she officially started work.”
Since then, Reed has been impressed by the way Davis has established herself.
“She has found her way into every nook and cranny in state government,” he said. “For example, I also find myself in nooks and crannies, so I'm on the Statehouse Tutorial Task Force, which looks at the state capital as a museum with curated exhibits. And she popped up at that meeting. Then with the Vermont Council of Rural Development, spearheading some of these COVID developments, she popped up. She pops up with meetings with the Vermont State Police. She's everywhere and she's great. In many cases, she's sharing promising practices from one agency to the other, or one state body to another state body. She is smart as a whippersnapper.”
Davis brings clarity and understanding that extend beyond race to other areas like disabilities, sexual orientation and gender issues, Reed said.
“Her mandate might have started off with race at the center,” he said. “But it looks at race and transfers what we've learned about racial inequities to other areas. She has a much more holistic approach. I think she's doing a great job. And I love the fact that she considers herself a Vermonter. Someone once said that a Vermonter is someone who has come to the state to make it a better place for everyone. Xusana has fallen in love with Vermont. Vermont is giving her an experience that has, in many ways, exceeded her expectations.”
Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland area branch of the NAACP, has worked very closely with Davis on a number of projects.
“It's been wonderful working with her,” Moore said. “She takes a lot of time to listen. She gathers information and listens to people's ideas and then takes what she's learned and synthesizes it into one or two ideas that moves the conversation forward and gives us a trajectory for progress.”
Just by being here, Davis shines a light on systemic racism, Moore said.
“She raises the idea of racial equity to the forefront of the minds of our agency heads and government officials,” Moore said. “I see people going to her more, which is part of the process of creating trust and relationships that will be critical in creating tangible and lasting projects. And there are ways that Xusana's advocacy and consultations have been critical.”
For example, when COVID-19 hit, all across Vermont, people were fearful.
“Then NAACP and Justice for All noticed there was a lack of data relating to race, ethnicity and COVID-19,” Moore said. “Xusana was critical in being the conduit in creating a platform for the Dept. of Health officials to come together with community advocates. She created a platform for all of us to be working together. Rest assured, I'm very glad she's in this role. I appreciate the ways in which she's so thoughtful, level-headed, knowledgeable and considerate, and also so honest about racial injustice in our system.”
It was Senator White who called Davis's newly created job “humanly impossible.” Moore concurs.
“She's willing to do what feels like an impossible task,” Moore said. “I know that racism is entrenched in Vermont. And it's impossible for one person to fix that by herself. I doubt even five people could do it. But she is doing a great job to connect with all the agencies and people who have to be at the table in order to start doing that.”
Reed, who has worked closely on racial issues with the Vermont State Police, said he thinks the job can be done if Davis remains conscious of three things.
“One is you that you can't overturn 400 years of racial inequity in a year,” Reed said. “That's a start. It's a very good start, but it needs to continue over long periods of time. It took over 15 years of working with the Vermont State Police to get them where they are today. You need robust investment in equity. Over that 15 years, the VSP has invested in training and special development. It has invested in a new structure in terms of the appointment of someone who is dedicated to fair and impartial policing – the first in the nation.”
The second thing is to look at proportionality and ignore it,” Reed said.
“We have 1.4 percent African Americans,” he said. “Schools might be tempted to hire 1.4 percent of their staff as African Americans. We need to abandon the idea of proportionality. We may be excluding really good people as we look to candidate pools and hiring.”
Remember the old joke that just because the cat had her kittens in the oven, it doesn't make them muffins? The third thing is to change the narrative, Reed said.
“We need to change the old Vermont narrative of flatlanders vs. the native-born Vermonters,” he said. “There are narratives about gender roles, too. Those narratives need to change. And those are the three things I've seen Xusana talk about. Those are the things which, if we embrace, will move Vermont toward our vision of a destination or a place where equity and inclusion is practiced. And equity – it means fairness. Being equal does not necessarily mean being fair.”
Davis was born in White Plains, New York, the second child and first daughter of parents who had immigrated from the Dominican Republic.
“My mom's in healthcare,” Davis said. “My dad works for the state. And they've had the same jobs for decades now.”
Davis declined to be more descriptive of her parents' work, but she added that “they experienced their own professional setbacks due to discrimination, based on factors like spoken accents or the heightened scrutiny that American institutions give to people educated in other countries. In that way, we do society a disservice by limiting people’s success due to our preconceived notions. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met over the years who are credentialed practitioners in their home countries, but who will never be able to practice their craft in the US. They end up settling for jobs that Americans in turn look down on.”
For Davis and her older brother, working came second to learning.
“We didn't have to contribute to the household finances,” she said. “I think a lot of children, myself included, were interested in things like babysitting. That's what young girls are socialized to believe that is their natural career choice at the age of nine. I got my working papers and my first job at, I think, 14 or 15. I was telemarketing for my local State Farm agency. But we didn't have a lot of discussions about money in our house. And I think that's reflective of a lot of immigrant families and communities and families of color. Household wealth has a different flavor to it, I think, depending on your upbringing in the United States. I think our parents just had a one-track mind for us. And it was just about learning as much as we possibly could in every context. And not assuming that the schools were the only place that we were expected to learn.”
After school came homework, of course.
“But then on the weekends, we did workbooks,” Davis said. “And we watched educational TV. And when we were horsing around, if we were ever put on punishment, our punishment was that we had to watch educational TV. So it was very much a learning-oriented household.”
Davis got her law degree from New York Law School with a concentration in international human rights law. While at school, she also directed a civil liberties education program for low-income and minority youth.
“My goal was to use what I learned for good,” Davis said. “To be an attorney for good, in the public interest. I did not realize that I was interested in policy and policymaking and legislation until I took my second internship at the New York Civil Liberties Union. I was a legislative fellow and I thought it was going to be boring. And it turned out to be one of the best and most formative experiences that I had in law school in terms of understanding where I saw myself in the public good.”
Among other things, her internships taught her that there was more than one way to use a law degree.
“I think a lot of people who want to be attorneys, or who think about attorneys, think litigation and criminal law,” Davis said. “And there's so much more. There's patent law, there's adoptions, you name it. I went into law school recognizing that I wanted to do something positive for people, but at that point, I had already become pretty jaded about the American legal system. So I knew I didn't want to be a prosecutor. I had mixed feelings about being a litigator. But it was not clear how effective you could be with non-litigation legal careers. My internships were really my first forays into legal work not based out of a courtroom.”
The most important thing Davis learned was that she could shape law as well as fight over it.
“I think there's a lot of potential in working in that sort of policymaking, rule-making, legislative setting,” she said.
Her first job out of law school was working for an elected official whose name she would not reveal.
“That was one of the most pivotal opportunities I ever got,” Davis said. “And I'm grateful that I had that experience. And yet, that employer was one of the worst employers I had ever had. I'm just gonna say broadly, I was subjected to violations of employment discrimination laws. And I did not insist that I be treated legally and equitably. And I have always regretted it. It was a failure on my part to demand fair treatment and legal treatment. I let things slide and as a result, I have learned not to do that.”
Davis said she preferred to talk about “a failure that I intend not to commit.”
“Oftentimes, when people who are equity advocates pursue or suggest or recommend or propose good policy, they're met with hesitation or resistance,” Davis said. “And at that point, they have a decision to make about whether they just accept the rejection and conform, based on what powerful people are comfortable with, versus insisting that it is good policy because it is good policy, and that it's not about the comfort level of decision makers. It's about arriving at a just conclusion.”
Davis does not intend to retreat from policy that might be pivotal to Vermont.
“So far, I haven't experienced this at all here,” she said. “But I'm sure there's going to come a time when I'm going to feel strongly about a measure and others may not feel so strongly about it and a decision will have to be made about, 'is this is this a hill I'm willing to die on?'”
Health And Housing In NYC
Davis's first big job was heading up a new task force at the New York City Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“In a nutshell, the job was helping the commissioner understand, from a high level, what the health department was doing in housing and around housing in the city, and how the health department could improve public health through housing,” Davis said. “For one example, the health department is really involved with the really obvious aspects of housing like mold, lead paint, window bars, that kind of thing. But the commissioner was really interested in looking more broadly at how the built environment, how neighborhoods and blocks, impact public health.”
Of interest were people who were forced by income to live in unhealthy parts of the city. For example, they lived in “food deserts” — where they had limited availability to healthy and affordable food — or “food swamps” — where they had an abundance of fast food, junk food outlets and liquor stores but few healthy food options. Or they lived in parts of the city without parks and bike lanes, so they had fewer options for exercise.
“All that impacts your health,” Davis said. “Do you live in a building that has no functioning stairwell? So you are unable to get exercise if you want to? Do you live in a neighborhood that has all the city's bus depots? Because that's contributing to higher rates of asthma. So how does the built environment more broadly impact public health? Do you live in a neighborhood that has lots of gyms and parks? Or do you live in a place that has nothing but pavement where you can't have opportunities to be outside?”
Davis's job was to pull together all the information she could gather and present it to the commissioner.
“The health department is huge, a sprawling agency with 6,000 employees, which is almost what the state of Vermont has in total,” Davis said. “We had a lot of programs and a lot of initiatives, and a lot of the work was very siloed. A big part of my job was just un-siloing them and bringing together all of those programs. Some even had the same clients. The newborn visiting program visits people in their home. And the asthma prevention programs may also be visiting those same clients. So I had to say, 'And you guys don't know that you're interacting with the same people.' So a lot of it was just unsiloing the housing work so that we could be more effective. And just help the whole agency, especially the commissioner, understand the breadth of our reach in the housing world.”
Davis stayed with the health department for a year and half.
“So, in a lot of ways, it was really just setting up the program,” Davis said. “And in my interactions internally at that agency, and then with other agencies and other partners, it was really just saying, 'Yes, the health department cares about housing. And this is why.' And I'm doing the spiel. And helping people see the connection between health and housing because a lot of folks don't, or they think it's just limited to lead paint and mold. A lot of it, really, was just setting the tone. And helping internal and external partners recognize the interplay between those things. To a large extent, it was really that sort of square zero, setting up the blocks.”
Davis felt she got the ball rolling at the health department, but she wanted something else. She wanted, really, to live in Vermont.
Coming To Vermont
Davis chose Vermont even before she knew the state had created a new job to look at racial equality. And it wasn't because of the skiing.
“I wanted to live in Vermont because it was close to New York, where my family is, and it isn't as heavily taxed as New York,” Davis said. “Technically, New York is the most heavily taxed state in the Union. Vermont ranks highest with property taxes, though, so it was a tradeoff that I did not realize at the time. But I was looking to stay close to my home state, but also to be in an in a place that legally felt less restricting. New York has a very robust regulatory scheme and to some extent, I was looking for an environment where I could do what I wanted. At least, that's the perception that I had of Vermont. Whether Vermont ends up being that, I think, is yet to be seen. But that's how a lot of us in other parts of the country view Vermont. Anyway, I was ready to leave the big city life. I didn't come up here to ski. I tried it once and I don't have motor skills, so it didn't go well.”
Davis now lives in Lamoille County, where she is working from home during the COVID-19 quarantine.
Once she had started her new job, she realized Vermont has a long way to go.
“Well, it's 2020, and we live in a state that is 94 percent White, then it's subjectively true that we're not doing great on diversity,” Davis said. “But I do applaud the state for being decisive and wanting to take this issue on. I think time is really going to tell how seriously we take this work. You know, one of the things that I was brought on to do was to identify systemic racism in all three branches of government and help those branches of governments eradicate it. So the real test comes when we've identified those points of systemic racism, and how the relevant agency department or branch chooses to address it. I think it's easy for people to say, 'I want to do more, I want to be equitable about diversity.' But when it's time to actually do the work, are we just talking or are we doing the work?”
Governor Scott takes her mandate not only seriously, but personally, she said.
“I have to say that I was pleased when I got here to learn that the governor is really committed to equity,” Davis said. “I think he takes it very personally when there's an incident in Vermont where there's racism at play. I know that he has high expectations for how we behave as individuals and as a collective. And I do feel very strongly that he feels very strongly that systemic racism is real and that we've got to work against it. We can't keep ignoring it.”
Overt racism is everywhere in Vermont, and it is up to White people to stop it, Davis said.
“White people can stop harassing brown people,” Davis said. “They can stop vandalizing Asian restaurants. They can stop yelling at Black people to go back to where they came from. They can stop assuming that Latino people are undocumented. And even if they are, recognize your reliance on them and on their labor in this state. Vermont is so proud of its dairy. But who do you think is breaking their backs producing it?”
Davis has personally experienced racism in Vermont.
Photo: Executive Directory of Racial Equity, Xusana Davis. Courtesy photo.
“Regarding my experiences of racism in Vermont, I’ll discuss one that is not monumental in itself, but that speaks to the way we internalize biases and change our regular behavior to accommodate them,” she said. “I am routinely watched and followed in stores in Vermont, and people who look like me have gotten so accustomed to it that we've come to expect it. We find ourselves making overt efforts to appear as non-suspicious and non-threatening as possible, which is an unnecessary and tremendous emotional burden.”
In fact, she continued, many Black people try to shrink themselves. Or when there's a disagreement, give others the benefit of the doubt over themselves.
“It speaks to the way that historically marginalized people have been trained to doubt themselves, and this includes people of color, women, young professionals, people living with disabilities, and more,” Davis said. “So what I’m highlighting in these kinds of situations is not so much the nature of a racist incident, but rather, the psychological and other impacts it has on marginalized people as they internalize these stimuli in their daily lives and interactions.”
A Hard Job
While Davis's relationship with the governor is the biggest tool in her toolbox, she has other means and methods at her disposal.
“My job is supposed to be with all three branches of government,” she said. “I have had more involvement with the executive than I have with the Judiciary and the Legislature, but I have worked with both, and I'm hoping to expand that relationship as time goes on. I rely a lot on the assistance and collaboration of the rest of the cabinet. So if I have a good idea about housing, I need to be able to work with the housing commissioner to realize that idea. If I have a good idea about education, I've got to be able to work with the secretary of education. And I'm really pleased to say that the cabinet members have been really wonderful partners. I feel confident they want to do the work.”
The Vermont Supreme Court is interested in Davis's work, as well.
“They are very keenly aware of issues of implicit bias and systemic racism,” Davis said. “That's because the criminal justice system, and the legal system in general, has for years been rife with it. Like the sentencing for cocaine that I mentioned before. Even though that's a national issue, the justices here are very aware of the way that law has been manipulated to oppress different groups over the years. So they have been very open to these kinds of discussions. They've already been pursuing certain initiatives on their own, and have brought me in for consultation. I've given presentations to the judicial college about racial equity. So I actually think that the judges need less convincing than some other folks I've seen in government.”
Overall, Davis thinks that leaders in Vermont's state governments are philosophically on board.
“And the next step, which is very difficult, is backing that up with words, with resources, with funding and with actions,” she said. “So, going from words to actions. I'm just thinking about one example — tourism and marketing. When we promote Vermont, we can say with words that we want to attract diverse people. And then when we show photographs and imagery, why are we only showing the same White people, who are of the same age group, who look to have the same ability level? Are we are we pattern matching?”
Vermont definitely desires fairness in policing, but the next time an incident of officer misconduct happens, will there be a policy in place against it, Davis asked.
“And how do we discipline that officer?” Davis said. “Does the issue just get dragged on, like we see in some other jurisdictions? Do they get suspended with pay? Do they just lose a couple of vacation days? Or do we demonstrate through real discipline and in real action that we take it seriously and no, we don't tolerate it.”
Just as Davis was settling into her job, COVID-19 was settling into the Vermont population. Davis was essential in getting virus information to refugee communities that might not have been able to read news reports and government messages in English, Rep. Christie said.
“She was impactful in disseminating to us, as legislators, that we had to get the information and the updates to new Americans around the state and to migrant workers around the state who might not be getting the information,” Christie said. “That's how she was able to help the groups that support new Americans and migrant justice. To let people know what was going on.”
The virus has created difficulties for Davis's work, however.
“The biggest way it affected my work was by threatening the funding that we would have needed to enact some of the initiatives that I was working on,” Davis said. “Across the board, our revenues are lower than they would have been. So with something like translation services, ordinarily I would have said, 'This is a contractor we can use. Here's a policy. We're going to have our stuff universally translated. And this is what it's going to cost us per year.' Now we have to compete with other recovery monies, and it's a lot more difficult to be able to find places in the budget. I can still identify what work needs to happen in terms of equity, but I think making the pitch might be a bit harder because there's not as much in the reserves, and there's not as much coming in as we had expected.”
Disparities in the way the COVID-19 virus hit different populations has revealed systemic racial inequities, Davis said.
“Racially disparate systems made us more vulnerable to COVID-19,” Davis said. “I'll give you an example. Generally speaking, it appears that people with conditions like heart disease, asthma, obesity and to some extent diabetes may be at higher risk of COVID-19 illness or death. And we know, statistically speaking, Black Americans have higher instances of those conditions than White Americans do. Some people would stop there and say, 'Well, that must be inherent to them. It must be genetic.' It's actually not. It is more epigenetic. That is to say, it's more dependent on our environments. It goes back to my experience in the health department with housing. We used to say, 'Your zip code has a bigger impact on your health than your genetic code.'”
If Latino children are more likely to die of asthma, it is because they are more likely to live in areas with higher FPM (fine particulate matter), meaning poorer air quality. That leads to upper respiratory infections, which leads to vulnerability to COVID-19.
Also, People of Color are more likely to live in food deserts and food swamps which increase obesity, heart disease and diabetes, underlying conditions of COVID-19.
Also, front-line and essential workers are likely to have lower incomes and higher risk for exposure because of their jobs. And chances are, they are less likely to have health insurance and childcare.
“I mean, there are so many factors that have more to do with our epigenetics than with our genetics,” Davis said.
It is hard to see these clearly in Vermont, Davis said, since the incidents are statistically small.
“So, for example, a couple of weeks ago I would find myself explaining to folks that even though black Vermonters had a higher rate — a rate that was double the rate of white Vermonters — for COVID cases, we were talking about a difference between, for White people, 860 cases, versus for Black people, 28 cases, right?” she said. “So the rate was twice as high but the raw number was significantly lower. In Vermont, our race statistics are really fragile for that reason. As an illustration, I always tell people I'm 100 percent of the Hispanic people in my household. If I move out, that's a 100 percent drop, right? So it's really hard when we have such low numbers. However, there are certain patterns that did emerge in Vermont, just like in the rest of rural America, where we saw Asian people, Latino people, indigenous people, and Black people who had higher rates of COVID-19 illness and death.”
In some places, poverty is used as a proxy for race, Davis pointed out. In Vermont, it is different because there are high poverty rates among Whites, as well.
'What's really important to note here is that a lot of low-income White people let themselves be pitted against communities of color by saying, 'Well, I don't have White privilege because I'm poor. I'm struggling.' And that is really a false dichotomy. Issues that impact low-income White people are often the same issues that impact communities of color. So allowing ourselves to have this sort of 'separate fates' mentality, where we think that our advances and struggles are mutually exclusive, only hurts people. White low-income people have more in common with people of color than they may like to believe. And that's why it's really important that we get Vermonters to understand how racial equity impacts them and how it benefits them.”
Vermont will have many ways of measuring racial progress. Referring back to languages, Davis said that once translations have been made, the state will be able to tell how many clicks each website is getting.
“Which hits or which things are being sought in the languages?” she said. “So if it's a lot of things having to do with schools or young children, we know that we need to be making sure that we're providing enough information and services for limited-English-proficient people regarding youth, right? If it's a lot of searching for things like driver licenses, then we need to make sure that we can offer a road test in a way that is linguistically accessible. Are people able to study for the exam? Or can they not find materials in a language that they speak? Things like that. Things that English speakers like us often take for granted. Those are some ways that we'll be able to measure progress.”
Once Vermont gets through the pandemic, will all Vermonters have access — in a language they speak — to information about other emergencies?
“Whether we have blizzards or whether we have pandemics, how are people able to plan and react?” she said. “Because they will have access to up-to-the minute information coming down from the state. They're not getting it 48 hours later.”
Even with the outrage over George Floyd's murder and the reinvigorated Black Lives Matter movement, racism is built into the American system, Davis said. It isn't going away.
“I don't think racism is changing,” she said. “I think racism is racism. The thing that has changed is the way in which it's expressed and the way that it plays out in systems. One reason that a lot of people reject the notion of contemporary racism is because they don't see it as obviously as it used to be.”
Signs don't say “Whites here” and “Colored here” anymore. Racism has gone underground.
“People say, 'Well, we had a Black president, so we can't be racist, right?'” Davis said. “They don't necessarily see obvious school segregation. And so it's difficult for them to believe that there is racism. It's moved from the obvious to the subtle. There are so many people who will tell you there is no such thing. And there are even there are more people who will tell you White men are the most oppressed group in the country! There are lots of people who actually believe that.”
To bring about change, White people need to step in and act, Davis said.
Photo: Xusana Davis, Executive Director of Racial Equity, speaks at a press conference for Juneteenth Day. Screen shot.
“It depends on White Vermonters moving beyond the platitudes,” Davis said. “They have to be willing to be uncomfortable. I will give one concrete example. There are a lot of jurisdictions around the country that have grown in density in terms of housing over the years, and some of the surrounding areas in those jurisdictions have remained very suburban. They are usually zoned for single-family housing. They may have minimum lot requirements. And when proposals come up to create denser housing, there is vehement opposition from a lot of the property owners in the area. They say it changes the character and lowers property values.”
This ensures that some people are able to have lawns and acreage. It also gives them an investment in the town because they pay property taxes.
“But it furthers the physical segregation of people who are often low-income, and who are often communities of color, by preventing them from being able to move to other areas simply because of strategic manipulations of zoning laws. So one thing that we have to grapple with in Vermont is the fact that we love our open space, but we also have a housing shortage. And as we, as a state, consider our aging housing stock and the scarcity of housing here, how are we going to tackle it? Are we going to do it in a way that perpetuates housing segregation? Or are we going to do it in a way that promotes integration, a way that allows for young families, low-income families, to be able to coexist with others. So that's one example.”
Overall, Davis thinks that government leaders are philosophically on board. And the next step, which is very difficult, is backing that up with words, with resources, with funding and with actions.
Take environmental conservation, for example.
“When we think about conservation, do we think about where are we going to site a waste treatment facility?” Davis asked. “Where we are going to put a bus depot, with all the smog that brings asthma? Where are we going to put the parks and the green spaces? Those health-promoting amenities often tend to go to areas that are predominantly White. And health-deleterious amenities are often sited in low income areas which are disproportionately of color. So if we are going to see real change, it will depend on how Vermonters choose to act when they are staring in the face of inequities in their state.”
What are the steps in “step up”?
“Public perception, public support and civic engagement is huge,” Davis said. “And not just at the federal level. At the state level, and also at the municipal level — perhaps especially at the municipal level. When we think about policing, when we think about housing and homeownership, when we think about education and school districts — these are all things that are decided and structured at the local level and at the state level. People can support bills that advance equity or oppose bills that don't advance equity.”
A good first step would be to contact your select board and ask them ‘Do you have an equity committee or an equity resolution? If not, why not?’
“Start a group in your town or join a group in your town,” Davis said. “Consume media that show fair representations of communities of color. When you buy dolls for your children, do all the dolls look the same? When you buy books and movies for your children, do they cast characters of color in the same roles that rely on tropes and stereotypes, or are you showing your children media that presents people of color in a variety of circumstances and in positive roles?”
Educators can play a big role.
“What does your curriculum look like?” Davis said. “Can you recommend improvements, especially in areas of social studies and history? If you know an educator, buy for them certain materials or curriculum aids that may be useful in helping to tell stories beyond the lies that we're told about how white people came and civilized the savages and they all eat turkey together.”
Vermonters also need to acknowledge that Vermont is built on unceded land, Davis said.
“You know, we have to acknowledge that Vermont land was never actually ceded by the indigenous people here,” she said. “So as we think about how we are going to utilize the land, we have to keep that in mind. Lifting up indigenous voices, and making sure that the Abenaki community has a big role in helping to shape the destiny of the state, is of critical importance.”
The Past Leads To The Future
The country already enjoys many benefits because of our Black and Latino citizens, Davis pointed out.
“Affirmative action, for example,” Davis said. “The number one beneficiary group in employment and education is White women. A lot of White people either don't know or don't want to acknowledge that. So when people think about affirmative action, they resentfully claim that People of Color are getting other people's opportunities. Even when we have a policy that's designed to even the playing field, White women or White people are still coming out ahead as a result of those policies.”
For another example, look at fair housing laws that provide and guarantee affordable housing to certain groups of people.
“Those fair housing laws were built on the backs of racial equity advancements,” Davis pointed out. “That's the Civil Rights Movement and the Fair Housing and Voting laws. So a lot of the benefits and rights that people take for granted as Americans are gains that were won through the Civil Rights Movement. We had Mendez v. Westminster, which was a legal case from 1947. It was about segregation in schools against Mexicans in California. And Mendez v. Westminster gave us Brown v. the Board of Education. And Brown v. Board gives all children, including White children, the right to a free and fair basic education.”
Even our right to a fair arrest was given to us by a Latino man, Davis pointed out.
“Mr Miranda is a Latino man whose name people know because he's the reason that when you get arrested, you're read your Miranda rights,” Davis said. “So there are so many, many things that we enjoy as Americans, as Vermonters, that are directly the result of gains made that at the time were considered for Brown people, or for People of Color. ”
Since there isn't a cure for racism, think of it as a chronic health condition, Davis said.
“We don’t have a 'cure' for obesity or diabetes or food allergies,” she said. “Rather, we must simply be vigilant about how we behave. Are we are making positive choices that mitigate the condition, or choices that give rise to bad outcomes? One example of systemic equity is language access, which is something the state is working on. Another comparison we can make is to government buildings with stairs but no ramps or elevators. Or public buildings that use dim lighting for aesthetic reasons despite the challenge it may pose to people who don’t see well in dim lighting. For those of us who can climb stairs and see in dim lighting, we might not consider this 'ableist.' But to the person who cannot access government services due to these design choices, it is quite 'overt.'”
In all of these examples, there are ways to work around them. If language is a problem, an English-speaking friend can accompany someone to take a driver's test. Or a friend can walk around a building with a headlamp. Or an employee can conduct a transaction outside the building if there is no elevator and the client can't manage stairs.
“But in all these cases, the workaround burdens the individual who has been excluded from consideration when the system was devised,” Davis said. “We are at the point where we need to be revising our systems so that scores of people don’t need to go through life employing workarounds everywhere they go. We can create an atmosphere where everyone’s needs are considered upfront, not as afterthoughts or as a result of litigation.”
Vermont has a long way to go to eliminate systemic racism, and Davis is not shrinking from the job she has taken on. She wants more than a career in Vermont.
“I see myself building a life in Vermont,” she said.
Representative Christie is delighted to hear it.
“She's a rock star,” Christie said. “If I had to sum it up, that would be our Xusana. She's a rock star and I'm glad she's here in Vermont.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.