Photo: Curtiss Reed, Jr, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut
The Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine
Curtiss Reed, Jr has been quietly shaping Vermont while it has been quietly shaping him.
The virtues of Vermont, its beauty, its outdoor life, its openness, its sense of community and its access to public officials have helped him address some of the things that are less beautiful, like Vermont's record on racial issues.
Over the past 20 years, Reed has evolved from outsider activist to insider change-maker.
Reed, 67, a longtime civil rights leader, has served as the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity since 2001; he is also the CEO of the CRJ Consulting Group. He became a groundbreaker when he started doing diversity training at the request of the Vermont State Police.
He even nudged Ben & Jerry's into creating its first flavor recognizing a current person of color — former football quarterback and social justice warrior Colin Kaepernick — with a frozen dessert named "Changed the Whirled."
Since then he's worked with many police departments and city governments. He created the Vermont African-American Trail. He helped co-found The Commons, Brattleboro's weekly newspaper.
He is building a deep website that tells the stories of the many people of color who live and work in Vermont today, so potential BIPOC visitors to Vermont will know there are people here who look like them.
In May of this year, Reed's work was rewarded with an honorary doctorate from Middlebury College.
The college called Reed “a champion of equity and inclusion” who “has dedicated his career to service, advocacy and fighting for the rights of all Vermonters.”
“You have provided the opportunity for hundreds of individuals and institutions throughout the state, and the region, to make Vermont a more desirable destination for all,” Laurie Patton, Middlebury’s president, said while making the presentation. “Curtiss, your work on behalf of all Vermonters has made this state a more inclusive, and therefore a much better, place for us all to live, work, and recreate.”
According to the US Census, only 1.4 percent of Vermonters identify as Black or African-American, while 2 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, and 92.6 percent identify as white alone. Reed's vision for making the state more welcoming to diversity is necessarily long-ranging.
“Suppress your socialization around instant gratification,” he says, smiling, but it's only partly a joke. He sees the future and he's trying to direct the best of it to the state he loves and calls home.
“We just began our 40-year initiative, Vermont Vision for a Multicultural Future,” Reed said. “We set the bar at making Vermont the epicenter of inclusive thought and practice in the United States. As the number of white heterosexual males with family incomes above $125,000 shrink, you need to replace that population — replace those consumers — with someone else. And those 'someone else's don't know that Vermont exists. So we need a campaign that is really focused on how to bring more folks of color, more consumers of color, to Vermont. Brattleboro is doing that. I wish more towns around the state would also take that up, and more chambers of commerce.”
Reed's portfolio of clients currently includes such high-profile organizations as Green Mountain Power, Vermont Public Radio, the Vermont State Police and The Alchemist Brewery in Stowe.
“The work is bottom-line driven,” Reed said.
The end result will be to increase the economic underpinnings of the state while adding diversity, inclusiveness and equity.
Jen Kimmich, co-founder and CEO of The Alchemist, met Reed while both were serving on the board of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
“Curtiss is a leading expert in the field of diversity,” Kimmich said. “So when we were developing our action plan to address racism and issues around inclusivity, we knew Curtiss was the person we wanted to work with. Once we started working with Curtiss, we began thinking more broadly. We want to be impactful not only in our work but in the community.”
Reed helped The Alchemist focus on education in the local school system, making Vermonters more welcoming to people of color, and expanding its outreach and market to new groups of customers.
“I worked directly with Curtiss,” Kimmich said. “He took the action plan that we had written and he helped us write it to be more impactful. Curtiss did and continues to guide us. We host a lot of special events like concerts. A lot of times we tend to limit ourselves to our own networks, but there is still untapped talent out there. Now when we provide sponsorship, we work with organizers to make sure they're being inclusive. We need to think of being inclusive all the time.”
Reed has encouraged Kimmich to strengthen her brand within the national multicultural marketplace.
“We've done that by reaching out to Black- and Brown-owned breweries, LGBTQ breweries, and just expanding our network, partnering with other breweries,” Kimmich said. “Curtiss has encouraged us to use the arts and celebration as a vehicle to bring people together and create a much more diverse and inclusive community. Music, art installations, sponsoring Juneteenth events, highlighting Black and Brown artists — we have a national platform, and what a great tool that is.”
Reed encourages his clients to take “subversive action,” Kimmich said.
“He talks about providing exposure without making bold statements,” Kimmich said. “If we can bring Black and Brown musicians and professionals into schools, it provides exposure to kids. Kids get used to seeing different people. That's really important. That's what Curtiss would call subversive action. You provide this exposure and you keep doing it and you keep doing it.”
As Reed likes to point out, Black people have been in Vermont since before Vermont was Vermont, only most Vermonters don't know about it.
The Green Mountain Boys were multi-racial. There were communities of color in Woodstock and Hinesburg as well as in other places around the state well before Independence. African-Americans fought in the Civil War.
Buffalo Soldiers — African-American soldiers formed into cavalry and infantry units after the Civil War — were posted at Fort Ethan Allen. There were African-American poets in Guilford and family farmers of color in Townshend, and Black people who settled in many other Vermont communities.
“Over the centuries, Black Vermonters have had a profound impact on agriculture, owned businesses, held public office, fought alongside fellow citizens in major wars, and worked to make Vermont and the nation a better place,” says the Vermont African-American Heritage Trail website (www.vermontvacation.com/plan-your-visit/trip-ideas/african-american-heritage-trail(link is external)).
The Vermont African-American Heritage Trail has 13 stops, including the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh where visitors can learn about the Underground Railway, and Hildene, the Lincoln family estate in Manchester, which serves as a museum for the famed Pullman trains. It also features 16 historical markers.
Reed created the trail after a ruckus he raised about a political campaign garnered him some unexpected support.
In 2010, Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie ran for governor with the slogan “Pure Vermont.” Reed saw it as a double entendre.
While the Dubie campaign insisted that the slogan referred to the purity of Vermont's agricultural products, Reed thought it also had echoes of Vermont's shameful Eugenics movement and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Vermont in the early decades of the last century. He called the Dubie campaign out in a blistering op-ed piece that ran statewide.
“And the slogan is a bitter reminder of the bigotry and racial segregation experienced by Blacks under slavery and Jim Crow,” he wrote. “The precipitous drop of Vermont's Black population in the early 20th century was no doubt partially due to the Klan's efforts to keep Vermont pure... The 'Pure Vermont' brand is pure invalidation of the fastest growing segment of our population. And the brand's handlers have been dishing out a healthy dose of avoidant behavior or, optimistically, benign neglect. The inherent challenges and opportunities of a more multicultural Vermont should not be ignored or buried in the polite discourse of denial.”
The piece eventually cost him his high-level position as the chairman of the Vermont Advisory Panel of the US Commission on Civil Rights, but it gained him an important ally.
Running against Dubie was Peter Shumlin.
“Shumlin called me and asked me, 'How can I not appear so tone deaf?'” Reed said. “I said, 'Well, here are three or four things that you could do. First among them was the creation of the African-American Heritage Trail. He liked the idea. He saw dollar signs in it. A couple of days right after he was elected, I met with his senior leadership team. When I was done, all I could see were dollar signs in their eyes, too. 'We never thought about this before. Black people are outdoor enthusiasts? And we don't know this? And we can actually market to them?' And I said, 'Yes, but you need a hook.' And that hook was the African-American Heritage trip. That is something you could promote.”
Statewide, most of these notable sites already existed. The trail collected these sites together and branded them to “draw the attention of consumers of color who were outside of Vermont's borders,” as the website says.
After that first meeting with Shumlin's team, Reed began to notice the inclusion of people of color in Vermont Lifemagazine stories.
“Even some of the advertisers in Vermont Life magazine began to show more multicultural folks in their advertisements,” Reed said. “Which sent a huge signal to the marketplace that 'Oh, people like me, who look like me, are in Vermont Life magazine? So why not? Why not Vermont?'”
The Vermont Partnership is a small organization, with only three or four permanent employees and yearly revenues of about $175,000.
“We're independent consultants,” Reed said. “And depending on what the job is, and what the area of expertise is, we can bring in more people. For example, VPR wanted us to overhaul their HR department, so we brought in someone with HR expertise. Or someone else wants to explore having white affinity groups — groups of white people talking about being white and how that affects their decision making. So different subjects have different skill sets.”
Reed was born in St Louis during the early Jim Crow days and grew up in a segregated part of the city. Still, he managed to attend a prestigious private high school where he was routinely attacked with racial slurs. He stuck it out for four years because he valued the education he was getting.
After taking his BA from Washington University and doing some work in Washington, DC, he joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and served as a volunteer in Tunisia.
He stayed in Africa after his Peace Corps stint ended, working for the National Cooperative Business Association training cooperative management trainers in French-speaking and Portuguese-speaking Africa. He also spent four years doing the same kind of work with Africare.
All told, he worked in Africa for 18 years, mainly building cooperatives.
“Cooperatives are a stealth way of introducing democracy to the developing world,” Reed said. “One person, one vote. Accountability. Service to your members. All the things co-ops stand for are really mini-democracies.”
Reed discovered Vermont when he came to ski in December of 1978; he liked it and relocated to Brattleboro in the spring of 1979. When he returned from Africa in April of 2001, he settled permanently in Brattleboro with no idea of what he was going to do next.
Eventually, he took a job as the head of a community organizing group called ALANA (African, Latinx, Asian and Native American). He revised it and renamed it the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity.
One of his first statewide initiatives centered around racial profiling and came at the invitation of Colonel James Baker, then head of the Vermont State Police and now interim commissioner of corrections for the State of Vermont.
“It was 2006, and Curtiss had been quoted several times in the local newspaper concerning the state police's involvement in racial profiling in traffic stops,” Baker said. “I didn't know him, but I made the decision to drive down to Brattleboro unannounced and ask to see him. In full uniform. The receptionist was a little taken aback. She said he was busy. I said I'd wait. And that's how I met Curtiss Reed. At the time, he chaired the US Civil Rights Commission for the State of Vermont. As we were getting to know each other, he asked me if I would testify at a hearing he was holding on the issue of racial profiling. And I did, and from there Curtiss and I evolved a very deep friendship.”
Reed educated Baker about bias and equity.
Photo: Curtiss Reed, Jr, executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. Photo: Randolph T. Holhu
“It changed my whole outlook on the issue,” Baker said. “He educated me on what it's like to be a person of color in one of the whitest states. He started doing consulting for us. Eventually I moved to head the police academy, and then I became police chief of Rutland. I brought him with me, and I introduced him to many, many people who had challenges.”
One of the most important things Baker said he learned from Reed was that many people are uneducated about “the hidden truth” of racism.
“When it comes to bias, gender and ethnicity, there's not a lot of people who are outright racists,” Baker said. “There are a lot of folks who are uneducated about the issues. Curtiss taught me how to step outside myself and think about how the issues of equity affect the justice system and law enforcement. He taught me that I need to put myself in the position of people who have lived experiences unlike mine. I think Curtiss was one of the early voices willing to have the courage to stand up and sound the alarm about the hidden truth — that there is, in fact, an unlevel playing field, especially in the justice system. And it's not just about race, it's about poverty and sexual preference, too.”
Reed's strong suit is his ability to collaborate, Baker said.
“I think his recent recognition from Middlebury speaks volumes about his ability to bring people together,” Baker said. “Race is not an easy topic to talk about. People are either on the left or the right, and Curtiss has the ability to bring people together in the middle and have a conversation that will make a difference.”
Aly Richards is the CEO of Lets Grow Kids, a Burlington nonprofit working for affordable, high quality childcare. She too met Reed while they were both on the board of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. She said her organization relies on him to create “a truly equitable high quality childcare that is as inclusive as possible,” one that breaks inequities instead of perpetuating them.
“At the end of the day, is there a diverse workforce taking care of the kids?” Richards said. “Is the curriculum culturally responsive? Beyond that, are we giving every child the best possible start? This is when kids are forming their opinions of the world. Curtiss is specifically helping us think about the importance of child care for historically marginalized populations. It's a new language we're all learning together — understanding the nuances. Actually, we all have biases we don't recognize. Do you socialize with people who don't look like you, for example?”
Reed is an “incredible guide,” Richards said.
“He has really helped me understand how I can facilitate a social change movement in Vermont – in this case, child care – that truly interacts with all Vermonters,” she said. “Not just middle class white Vermonters, but everyone. He breaks it down. He supports you in learning and in getting it right. He's been doing this work for a very long time, and he's become an institution. He's seen a lot of changes in the discussion and perspective over time.”
Christopher Louras, the former mayor of Rutland, reached out to Reed when Rutland's police and community were “in complete turmoil,” he said.
“I met him through Jim Baker,” Louras said. “There was bias within the community and within the city as an organization. Because Jim Baker was an early adopter, he brought Curtiss in to help move the ball regarding racial disparity issues and bias and inclusion training in the Rutland City Police Dept. I, as mayor, was personally and professionally so impressed with Curtiss's professionalism, his subject matter, and his demeanor, I used him to further our own City of Rutland organization – to provide the same level of services to the rest of City Hall.”
Reed and his staff met with department heads and began bias and inclusion training.
“He impressed upon us the state of demographics in Rutland,” Louras said. “He helped us recognize that reaching out to the communities of color in a positive way would be the moral reason, but it would also give us economic development and future planning.”
When Louras began to prepare Rutland for refugee resettlement, he again reached out to Reed.
“During the early days of our refugee resettlement program, there were several issues where I needed to pick his brain, to help us as we tried to educate the Rutland community to the benefits of refugee resettlement. He was an invaluable asset during that period.”
Refugee resettlement failed in Rutland at that time, and Louras was voted out of office mainly on that issue.
“But it would have been much worse if I didn't have Curtiss as a resource,” Louras said.
Louras described Reed as soft-spoken.
“It's that, and his ability to read a room, and read individuals within that room, which made him so effective at his job,” Louras said. “And that's rooted in integrity and empathy. He's able to recognize not only how people are thinking and reacting but why they are thinking and reacting, and he helps people self-reflect — providing they're willing to and able to. And if some individuals are incapable of self-reflection, Curtiss is able to use them as training aides for the people who are capable.”
Reed is deeply connected to Vermont's African-American community. When Xusana Davis, for example, came to Vermont to become the state's first executive director of racial equality, the welcoming/networking party was held at Reed's apartment. And James Alvin “Al” Wakefield, the retired founder of Wakefield Global, an international executive search company, said Reed was the first person he called for advice recently while writing a Declaration of Inclusion for the State of Vermont.
The declaration has already been adopted by some 16 municipalities and is expected to be passed into law by many others; Governor Phil Scott has signed on to the idea, Wakefield said.
“I think Curtiss has been instrumental in bringing about change for social justice for all races, ethnicities and genders in the State of Vermont over the past 20 years,” Wakefield said. “I think he's been a guiding light. Without his vision and leadership, the changes we've seen might not have been done. Curtiss is a bright guy, he's a leader, he's a visionary, he's a good, sensible down to earth person who is easy to talk to and easy to work with. He knows everybody, is highly respected, and I know I can get rational and commonsensical advice from him.”
St Louis was a segregated city when Reed was born.
“North St Louis was all black,” he said. “South St Louis was German, Italian, Polish, English, Irish. In the middle there's something called the Central Corridor, and on the western side of that was Washington University, where I graduated, and then on the eastern side was St Louis University. So it was this area of free thought, with all the galleries, hippies, jazz clubs and Beatniks contained to that area. We lived in North St. Louis. From my age, you can tell that I was born during the first era of Jim Crow. And St. Louis was not exempt from the racial terror and the tension of the time.”
Reed's father worked for the Department of Defense as an accountant. His mother was a secretary.
“My parents were really protective,” Reed said.
Because the family lived in North St Louis, all of Reed's elementary school teachers were Black. The policemen were Black. The shop owners were Black.
“It was a community of professionals,” Reed said. “My doctor was Black. There were judges who were Black. There were lawyers and attorneys. There were physicians. The OB/GYN who delivered me — Dr Hill — was a Black woman. There were store owners, there were folks that owned car dealerships. And so our parents sort of tried to protect us from moving into South St Louis, or even into the central corridor.”
Reed has one younger brother whom he describes as a “Type T.”
“Type Ts are thrill seekers,” Reed said. “He was the first Black man to run marathons on all seven continents and in all 50 states. He's run over 130 marathons. So he is a seminal figure in the distance running world. He was a co-founder of the National Black Marathoners Association. He is a motivational speaker. We're very close.”
Reed's parents divorced when he was young. He has a half-sister, now a podiatrist, from his father's second marriage.
While his parents were still together, the family lived in the large Darst-Webbe public housing project.
“Its claim to fame is that the Spinks brothers grew up there as well,” Reed said. “I might reasonably say that I probably knew them when they still had teeth.”
The projects had very little grass or trees to break up the concrete of what Reed called “our 12-story prison.”
“And then one day our parents, for reasons totally unknown, put me and my brother on a school bus,” Reed said. “And we left St Louis with a bunch of other city kids to a place called Camp Wyman. And I fell in love with the natural world. Trees, the constellations, bugs, skunks, snakes, squirrels — OK, there were squirrels in the city — but all manner of nature, I fell in love with it.”
He met his first important mentor there.
“In the pantheon of Black men who shaped my early life, most were either uptight, really conservative, or academic,” Reed said. “But I met this guy named Shivers who just blew the stereotypes out of the box. He taught me to swim. And despite Jim Crow, I gleaned from him that a black swimmer was not an oxymoron. He gave me permission to be my full self and to receive whatever nature had to offer. He encouraged me to go to a leadership training program in a place called Sherwood Forest Camp in Troy, Missouri. And it wasn't until I completed the training program that I realized that Shivers was actually the nom de guerre for Rodney Scott Hudson. Like for about a decade, I didn't even know this guy's name.”
Hudson is a well-known actor and teacher.
“In a funny sort of way, I eventually moved to Vermont, I think, in part inspired by Shivers,” Reed said. “At the time, he was working on his Master's in Theater Arts at the University of South Dakota. And so, if a black man like Shivers can live in a state as white as South Dakota, why can't I eventually claim Vermont as my home?”
Reed believes he got his sense of adventure from his mother.
“My mother was very meticulous, a great record keeper,” he said. “She could type 120 words a minute. I once gave her a paper of mine to type, and after she finished and gave it back to me she enrolled me in a typing class. But the thing that's probably the greatest impression on me is her sense of adventure.”
He illustrated that comment with a story. It seems that Interstate 70 crossed St Louis, and whenever his mother drove that way, he and his brother saw a sign that said Kansas City 252 miles. And every day, he and his brother would say, “Hey, let's go to Kansas City.” And every day, his mother ignored them.
“Then one day, we said, 'Why don't we just go to Kansas City' and she passed the regular exit,” he said. “And she kept going and going. We were out of St Louis. We were in the cornfields. And she didn't say a word. At one point we stopped for gas, and my brother and I thought maybe we should exit the car, find a policeman and say that our mother's gone totally, totally mad. But we were too scared to do that. So we kept driving, driving, driving, and then we came to another large urban area. And she drove around, drove around, drove around. And then she stopped at this one house and pulled into the driveway. She gets out of the car and pops open the trunk. And some friends of ours who live in Kansas City, who always stopped at our house on their way to Chicago, came out and greeted us. And in the trunk our bags were already packed. It totally blew me away. It's more about the adventure than about the destination.”
His father didn't lack for a sense of adventure either, but it manifested itself differently. Once or twice a month, he would take the family out to the airport to watch the planes arrive and depart.
“We'd sit there and have a Coca-Cola and watch the planes come and go,” Reed said. “In a subliminal way I think he was imprinting the fact that one day we'd be on planes. So, travel and adventure had this imprint on me at a very early age. Being in the natural world had an imprint on me at a very early age. And in fact, I knew I wanted to live in a place like Vermont before I knew it even existed.”
Another event also influenced him: hearing a speaker at an early morning prayer breakfast.
“This one Sunday, there was a speaker who opened his mouth and I had never ever heard anyone speak English like he spoke it,” Reed said. “He was speaking the King's English. He was from Ghana or Nigeria, one of the missionaries from one of the countries where we had missionaries. Now, I'm living in North St Louis. And all of a sudden, this guy was talking and it was like, 'Wow! There are Black people living in other places in the world!' And that piqued my interest about overseas. At the time, I don't think either my mother or father knew what they were imprinting. They had no idea that 60 years later, I would look back on my life and see those as touchpoints for how I got to where I am today.”
Work And Education
Reed started working at an early age. His first job was sweeping alleys at the age of 13, “and you know, now I'm really handy with a broom,” he said. By 16, he was flipping ribs at a barbecue place called Roscoe's.
“Roscoe was a rather tall, imposing Black man who, on every employee's very first day, would say, 'I hired you to do an excellent job. Nothing less. Don't expect any kudos or any positive feedback from me for doing an excellent job, because that's what I pay you to do. Now, if you do something exceptional, then you might get a peep out of me,'” Reed said. “I learned what excellent service was, and about going beyond one's expectations for service and cleanliness. He'd come in and inspect the restaurant before we left, and if he found a little smidgen of crud in the corner of a case or cooler, you'd have to get everything out and do it all over again.”
All these things — Shivers, airplanes, adventure, typing, meticulous preparation — prepared Reed for the most potentially devastating part of his childhood: his education at an elite private independent school in St Louis, the St Louis Country Day School for Boys. It was a school for the city’s wealthy upper classes, and needless to say, these kids were primarily white.
“They took the best and brightest,” Reed said. “Kids were invited to apply. I took the exam and made the grade. They admitted me on a full ride. It was hell. I was called the N-word almost every day. I think the instructive experience here is that racism transcends economic status. Because these were the folks that had, arguably, lots and lots and lots of money. But they held really racist attitudes. And their kids didn't want me there, which is probably a reflection of their parents. I was the only Black kid in all my classes for four years.”
Reed had the option of leaving and going to a public school; he made the choice to stay.
“It was an opportunity that I was not going to let go,” Reed said. “I reaped the benefits of it. Both of our state senators were graduates of the school. Our secretary of the treasury was a graduate of the school. We were always taught to go to the source. For information, don't go to the Encyclopedia, but you pick up the phone, and you ask for the president of the company. Say 'I'm Curtiss Reed of the Country Day School. And can you help me with X, Y, or Z.' Not that I did that, but I learned to always go to the top. And there was a perseverance, a tenacity.”
Every senior had to give a final speech to the entire student body.
“My advisor thought that I was going to speak on the intersection of Baroque music and Gothic architecture,” Reed said. “I had another speech prepared, and it was titled, 'Thank You For Being Racist, Country Day.' And with parents in the room, and all the classes, I went through the litany of injustices and racial abuse that I had suffered over the course of four years. When I finished, only the Black students clapped. Then, for my graduation, the guy who was supposed to walk down the aisle with me refused to do so. So I walked alone. And he was fined for breaking protocol, but he said he wasn't going to walk next to 'that person.' I said, 'Fine.' I graduated smack dab in the middle of the class. And as a parting gesture, in the yearbook I quoted Fred Hampton, that 'you can kill a revolutionary but you can't kill revolution.' So that was my early life.”
Reed took his BA from Washington University in sociology and graduated with a fellowship at the Coro Foundation, which is designed to “develops emerging leaders to work and lead across different sectors by equipping them with knowledge, skills, and networks to accelerate positive change,” according to their web site.
But first his sense of adventure kicked in; he decided to take a solo bicycle trip from St Louis to Alaska, or at least to far-away Vancouver. That's a long haul, and a lot of it is uphill.
“I was young and invincible,” Reed said. “But after a few months, I realized I hadn't seen another Black person. So I get to Yellowstone. And I ask at the front gate, 'Are there any black people here?' I was starved to have a conversation with another Black man or woman. And the woman sheepishly said, 'Yes, my boss's Black.' I said, 'Take me to your leader.'”
Anthony Brown was the park historian for Yellowstone; he gave Reed an exceptional tour of the park.
“I saw stuff that normal tourists will never get a chance to see,” Reed said. “And then it just also happened that one of the staffers for US Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming was camping on vacation with his family at Yellowstone. His name was Carroll Wood, and he was also Black. My time in the park was spent with his family and his kids and they were just totally fascinated that I was biking across the US. Later, when the kids had grown up, his wife said I had had a big impact on those kids.”
Wood introduced Reed to Ira Hutchinson, the deputy director of the National Park Service, who was also Black. For him, Reed developed what might have been the first PR campaign to attract ethnic minorities to national parks and forests. By this time he was also “honing my political chops” as a Fellow at the Coro Foundation in St Louis, but was on assignment to the National Park Service in Washington, DC. And then his life changed.
“I got a call from a buddy of mine in Newfane,” Reed said. “He said, 'Hey, why don't you come up to Vermont? Let's go skiing.' I'd never been in Vermont before. I couldn't say where it was on a map. This was during the nor'easter of '78. I took the Vermonter and got off, trudged up the hill through the snow, got to Dunkin' Donuts and sat there for the next 36 hours until my friend got plowed out and he could come and get me. But then I had three glorious weeks skiing, eating, and drinking in the picture postcard perfect that was Vermont.”
Reed fell in love with Vermont and a few months later relocated to Brattleboro. He had no idea of what he would do to earn a living there. First he worked the night shift at the Brattleboro Retreat, and then he got a job with what was then called The Experiment in International Living. (Now called World Learning.) He helped manage in-bound and out-bound students and host families for the organization's Study Abroad Program.
After four years of managing international travel for others, Reed had the travel bug; he joined the Peace Corps.
Reed was first stationed in Tunisia.
“From Tunisia, I went to France,” he said. “I went to Aix aux Provence to study French. After the Peace Corps I worked for the National Cooperative Business Association, as it's known in the US Overseas, it's the Cooperative League of the USA because it's a nice acronym, CLUSA. And I worked for Africare for a while.”
Reed trained cooperative advisors in how to train cooperative managers.
“I would teach and advise a group of advisors in French or Portuguese,” he said. “They would, in turn, go to villages and start cooperatives or bolster or improve the management of cooperatives. In the vernacular, we were 'contract scum.' We worked the federal contracts. This would be a contract with World Bank or the World Food Organization or US AID. Then I moved up the ranks to being country director, or delegate. I had long-term residencies in Niger, Mali, Burundi and Guinea Bissau. I also worked in Rwanda. I worked in Senegal and Gambia. All of this work was to set up cooperatives or evaluate cooperatives.”
While Reed worked, he also traveled and collected African art. He and his second wife, Cathryn, who is white, share a stunning historic apartment, called “the penthouse,” in the renovated 1871 Brooks House on Main Street in Brattleboro.
It is centered around an iron circular staircase that leads to the building’s Mansard roof. (There’s a room up there where Rudyard Kipling and his cronies once played cards. Legend has it that the card players kept one of the stairs squeaky so they could tell if the sheriff was coming.)
The apartment is filled with hand-carved tribal masks from the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso. A large red-figured Berber rug from North African — his Zoom background during the recent pandemic — fills the wall of one room. Beautiful masks, drums, and other musical instruments, including a collection of blacksmith-forged bells, are scattered about the rooms. Both the couch and the bed are covered in a dynamic yellow-and-black printed bògòlanfini fabric — the whole is made up of small strips hand-sewn together. There is a collection of interesting snuffboxes and another of handmade silver napkin rings.
The strongest pieces in his collection are carved wooden granary doors. These fascinating carvings, intended to protect the harvest, show in detail African village life — hunters, farmers, blacksmiths, healers, herders, women pounding grain and fertility images as well as crocodiles, cattle and horses. On one, some people are definitely making love. The largest door covers an entire wall and weighs over 300 pounds. It took three men to get it into the apartment.
In Africa, Reed introduced the novel idea of using host nationals instead of hiring expats to execute nonprofit contracts.
“We were spending all this taxpayer money on expatriate costs, expatriate housing, swimming pools and six weeks of vacation in a foreign country, when that money could be better used by host country nationals if they had won the contract,” Reed said. “We should be preparing host country nationals to compete with international development firms for international contracts.”
This idea is still percolating in Africa.
“It's still evolving,” Reed said. “Well, in some countries it's devolving, because of civil war in places like Niger and Mali. But there's absolutely no reason why an organization of host country nationals can't do this work, particularly given that we paid for their education — we pay for host country nationals to come to the United States to get their masters and PhDs, and we then return them to their home countries. Why not put that brain power to use in a competitive environment? It was difficult, but nonetheless, folks saw what the vision was and that the component pieces were there. They just needed to be stitched together in a way that would make them highly competitive on the international marketplace. So I had my overseas career.”
Reed met his first wife, Winnifred, in Niger while she was working for Africare. They married in Guinea Bussau; they have three children who are now grown and living on the West Coast.
A Changing Vermont
“While I was away, I paid my taxes in Vermont,” Reed said. “I voted absentee ballot. I got the Brattleboro Reformerthree or four weeks late. So Brattleboro is very much my residence. I came back in 2001. And at that point, Brattleboro had remained the same in many ways but had also changed. I had this chasm of knowledge about current events in the States. Like I totally missed 'Deep Space Nine' and 'Star Trek' and 'Friends.' But there were a lot more folks of color here — so many that so I didn't know all their names. When I was here before, there were only five or six of us in Windham County. And that's when I began to work for ALANA.”
ALANA in Brattleboro was doing community organizing. At the time, it was the only branch of the organization not attached to a college or university. Reed proposed an overhaul.
“I wrote a strategic plan, and the board said, 'Oh, we love this!'” Reed said. “Basically, it was that the organization needed to transition from doing direct services to policy work. It needed to be driven by data. And we needed to move from being a hyperlocal organization to being a statewide organization. I'm coming back from Africa, where the infrastructure is crap. We've got good roads here. We have telephone service, internet service. So there's actually no reason why this cannot be a statewide, if not, Northern New England initiative. I said to the board, 'If you really like this and you want me to do it, you need to raise $100,000.' And a couple of weeks later, they came back and said, 'We have $100,000. Are you ready to start now?' And I said, 'Okay, let's do it.'”
The board changed the organization's name to the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and appointed Reed as its executive director.
In starting this work, Reed took his inspiration from a conversation he had had with a well digger at an oasis in Nigeria. The man told Reed, “You can't dig a new well by digging an old well deeper.”
“When I came back, I realized what was happening in Vermont was the notion of change based on social and or moral values,” Reed said. “Discussions around race and diversity and inclusion and equity were all driven by, 'Let's do the right thing.' That was digging the old well deeper. Because I spent all this time working in the business community overseas, I thought we should be looking at these issues from an economic vantage point. The new well is making the argument for Vermont, writ large, that if it wants to enjoy the benefits of a changing demographics, then it needs to change its business practices. Then visitors and consumers of color can come to Vermont and have an experience that exceeds their expectations.”
While he was beginning to dig this subtle new well, Reed took part in two loud and public changes in Brattleboro.
First, in 2005, when a popular editor was fired from a Brattleboro Reformer, then being gutted by an out-of-state owner, he, along with 11 other activists, helped found a local left-wing weekly, The Commons, as a nonprofit that can never be bought or sold.
“We talked for two years weekly before the first issue hit the stands,” Reed said. “We wanted a news outlet founded just for Windham County.”
Fifteen years later The Commons, now a popular, magazine-style, non-political weekly community newspaper, is still going strong.
His second — and much more controversial — effort was to try and change Brattleboro Union High School's sports mascot, which was a southern colonel who looked a lot like the chicken-frying Colonel Sanders.
“The BUHS student group Students for Peace asked me to get involved,” Reed said. “I was happy to do so, so that my children would not have to play sports under a racist mascot.”
Reed was well ahead of his time, because the fight over racist mascots continues to this day. But in this case, he won a partial victory. The school board decided to retire the Colonel Reb mascot, but the sports teams are still called the Colonels.
The Bennington Problem
By now, pretty much everyone in the country knows about Bennington and Kiah Morris.
Morris served in the state Legislature as a Representative from 2014-2016 and from 2016-2018. She was the first African-American and person of color elected from Bennington County and the second African-American woman to be elected to the Legislature in Vermont history. During her third campaign, she and her family were so targeted and tormented by Bennington racists that she left her campaign and, eventually, the town.
Morris claimed the police did nothing to protect her and her family. A later study showed that the Bennington Police, a small rural department, had done everything it legally could, and the Vermont attorney general backed up that report. But the connection between racism and the town of Bennington remained ineradicable.
Don Campbell was the former chair of the Bennington Select board and had a front-row seat to the outrage.
“We're all still reeling from that,” Campbell said. “A relatively small number of people made Kiah Morris's life really miserable. We felt we did everything we could to help, but there weren't enough tools in the toolbox, including the attorney general's toolbox. We elected her over and over again. The idea that Bennington's reputation would be sullied by a small number of heinous actors is despicable.”
The community brought in Reed as a consultant.
“The community has a forward-facing response to racism in America,” Campbell said. “When we were challenged by the attorney general to do an evaluation of our policing policies, we had two choices. We could investigate the response to the Kiah Morris complaint, which was not going to lead to transformative change, or we could do a community process that involved more time and thought. Col. Baker suggested we talk to Curtiss Reed, and we ended up with something much more transformative.”
Reed's response was to listen and reflect intently.
“He was adamant that a single investigation into a single incident wouldn't do much,” Campbell said. “Curtiss challenged us to go deeper. He described his experiences in other communities and with the state police and other fraught police situations. He described a process of building blocks. He said we needed to start with a strong foundation and build up to a point where there is trust in the process and the ability to see meaningful police reform and community participation and oversight. If we had gone straight to a community oversight board, we wouldn't have been ready for it, and it would have inspired backlash and derision. Instead, we took the time to do the foundational work.”
Reed put out an RFP with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, looking for someone to do a meaningful evaluation of the local police system. From multiple proposals, Campbell said, Reed helped them choose the most expensive one.
“That report came back and said, in essence, that there was opportunity to update police policy and do things that would prevent future problems,” Campbell said. “That the police force was basically doing a good job, but there were areas of improvement. Curtiss designed a process and implemented it to increase channels of communication, be clear about the town vision, and do the foundational work of police policy reform with the idea we might then be in a position to face the final recommendation, which was consideration of some kind of community policing oversight entity. And he's still in it with Bennington.
He's in it for the long haul. That's the thing about Curtiss, he sticks with a project.”
Reed was the perfect consultant for Bennington, Campbell said.
“He was remarkably able to engage with all parties — and some of those parties would be the police themselves, town government, the community, people of color, nonprofits,” Campbell said. “He is able to walk in all worlds. His insights get serious consideration by everybody he speaks to. Instead of being a domineering leader, he empowers the group by directing its evolution, not its outcome. So he helps communities learn what they need to know about themselves. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. If something is bad behavior, he identifies it as bad behavior. But he's worked on a process for addressing it rather than just calling it out. He's quiet, thoughtful, principled, communicative, busy, and dedicated to community growth. He brings out the best in people.”
Every community with a police force could benefit from the process that Bennington went through, Campbell said.
“It was a process of self examination on policy and procedure,” Campbell said. “It's one that most communities can't or won't make time for, but they really should. This is more about policing than race relations. It's about what the community expects from the police. We need to be very clear about our policies and procedures so we have data and accountability regarding our police process. This has been all about process. He could have come in and told us what the answer was, but it's all about process with Curtiss. I wish we could replicate Curtiss. There are not enough Curtisses. But there is racism in Bennington and in Vermont. We have bigger work to do as a society on racism.”
Reed's work with Bennington is still continuing.
Diversity And Tourism
Racial profiling — often described as being pulled over by the police for “driving while black” — has always been a divisive issue.
“Rather than say to law enforcement that racial profiling is a problem, I said, 'Prove to me that you're not racially profiling. Where's the data?'” Reed said. “Well, they didn't have any data.”
To spur data collection, Reed's organization distributed a survey to voters on a Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting Day.
“When we tallied up the results, they said that 81 percent of Brattleboro residents thought the Brattleboro police department was doing an excellent job,” Reed said. “All right. Then we went back to see who voted. And less than 1% of the folks who voted were Black. So I took the same survey and added one question to it, which was, 'Is racial profiling an issue?' All the other questions were the same. It turned out that 81% of 95 black households in Brattleboro rated the police as poor, and over 80% said that racial profiling was a major issue. One day after the survey was published, all of law enforcement was up in arms.”
That was when Baker came down to Reed's office to talk.
“He sat in our waiting room for about 45 minutes or an hour until I was free,” Reed said. “Then he came in and he said, 'I believe your survey. What can we do to make this better? What can state police do to regain the trust of community members of color?' And I had a couple of ideas. That's when we began the substantive work.”
Baker was especially taken by one idea that Reed introduced.
“We had to understand that the only public official any visitor will encounter in the State of Vermont is someone in law enforcement,” Reed said. “So why have this protocol of asking someone, 'Do you know why I pulled you over?' It sets up a narcissistic relationship to begin with. Doesn't matter if you're Black, white or orange, you are in this anxiety-producing encounter.”
Reed suggested that when the state police pull over a motorist, they identify themselves.
“They should say, 'I'm Trooper So-and-So, and I pulled you over because you were speeding,'” Reed said. “And the only question to ask is, 'Is there a reason for that?' You're not robbing a person of their own personal dignity that way. They may find out that the reason they were speeding is because the water broke for the woman in the passenger seat and you're trying to make it to the hospital. Or you may find out that the family cat of 30 years died, and you really weren't paying attention to the lanes. And that it sends a message of public safety first, not enforcement.”
The motorist might not like getting a ticket, but at least they understand why it is happening.
“When visitors come in, they are more apt to be stopped by the state police than the sheriff's office or a local police department,” Reed said. “But unfortunately, sheriffs' departments and local PDs don't practice the same protocol as the police. So what are all the different ways that the police could change in terms of its training, in terms of its protocols, in terms of community engagement? What can they change that makes them a better law enforcement agency?”
Reed told a story that illustrates a possible positive result of this training.
“There's a gentleman who flies into Burlington, a Black guy, and he gets his rental car,” Reed said. “He gets a phone call while he's in the car. He decides to pull over because he sees the sign about not using handheld devices while driving. Two minutes later, he sees the blue lights flashing in his rearview mirror. A state trooper gets out, walks to his car and says, 'Is everything okay?' The guy's kind of dumbstruck. He says, 'Yes. Just pulled off the road because I need to respond to this phone call with a text.' The trooper turns around, gets into the cruiser and leaves. The guy gets to his destination in Montpelier and cannot stop talking about how he had an encounter with law enforcement that did not assume he was a criminal to start.”
Reed heard the story from a former executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
“It turns out the guy in the car was the national director for the National League of Cities,” Reed said. “What do you guess? The national convention the year after that was held in Vermont. To what extent was there a causal relationship between meeting a trooper that didn't assume he was a criminal and bringing the convention to Burlington, we may never know. He may have already picked Vermont. We're unsure about that. But he was certainly much more enthusiastic about Vermont after his encounter with the state trooper. That should be multiplying itself hundreds of times on a daily basis in the state, because you never know. You never know if the person that you're following in a local establishment might not be the next job creator.”
The Vermont African-American Heritage Trail helps with that, too.
“When we unveiled the marker commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers posted at Fort Ethan Allen, we invited Buffalo Soldier Trooper motorcycle clubs throughout New England to come,” he said. “You have something like 2,000 Black motorcycle clubs in the United States. There are about 200 that carry the name Buffalo Soldier and Trooper. They are the elite of the elite motorcycle clubs in Black motorcycle club culture. They're the philanthropists. They ride these humongous Harley's and BMWs. So, if you've got a marker about to be unveiled commemorating Buffalo Soldiers, why not invite the Buffalo Soldier motorcycle clubs to Vermont?”
Reed invited the clubs from New England, and three or four showed up.
“Many of them had never been to Vermont before, even though they were from Massachusetts, Connecticut, or other parts of New England,” he said. “They came and had a wonderful time. And about two months ago, I got an email from one of the clubs that said, 'Hey, we're ready to come back to Vermont. Can you suggest times or locations?'”
Then Reed told a different kind of story, one that happened a decade ago in Bellows Falls. It concerned a barber named Mike.
“A black doctor, a retired career military guy, wanted a buzzcut,” Reed remembered. “And Mike, who was sitting at the front door playing checkers or something, turned him down. The guy walked in and asked if the barber was in, and he said 'No.' Then the guy came back and found Mike cutting someone's hair. The guy wrote a scathing letter to the editor. He was a doctor. He was looking to move his practice, maybe to Bellows Falls, or at least to Vermont. And he just wanted a buzzcut. But now he's not bringing his practice to Vermont. He won't buy the nice home. He won't hire the folks he needs to run his office. He won't increase the work being sent to local labs. And all that because of someone who's a knucklehead.”
This particular story made the national press. Mike the Barber said he refused to serve the guy because he didn't know how to cut Black hair.
“But the guy's military,” Reed said. “There's only one way to cut a buzzcut. So opportunity can present itself right in front of you. But if you don't have a keen eye for it, you're going to lose the opportunity.”
He gave another example of bad business practice taken from his rambles around the state.
“I've been to country stores that had signs that said, 'Parents keep your children quiet or we will sell them into slavery,'” Reed said. “I have to go to the store owner and say, 'As a Black man, I find this really offensive. My ancestors were slaves, and this really repels me — and other people.' The most recent sighting was in Chester, at one of the antique stores. They said, 'We didn't mean for it to be offensive, and we'll take it down.' But think of the number of other folks who passed that sign and didn't say anything? And it left a sour taste in their mouth. Racism is bad for business, and if you're alienating customers, you're affecting growth. Why is it taking so long for businesses to make that connection?”
Answering his own question, Reed said that part of the problem is that the people running these businesses may be denying the history of America, or are denying that racism exists. Take the symbolism of the Confederate flag.
“Four or five years ago, a young 12-year-old wrote a letter to the Addison Independent,” Reed said. “His beef was the fact that some knucklehead along Route 7 was flying the Confederate flag. And he thought it painted the town in a really negative way. 'Was there anything that anyone could do to remove the flag?' he wanted to know. Because those are not his values. I went to the Chamber of Commerce and said, 'Would you write a letter supporting the kid's position that it's bad for business? That it will repel people from our town?' And keep in mind, there are two sites on the African-American Heritage Trail in Middlebury.”
The Chamber responded that it was a First Amendment issue and their hands were tied.
“Think about it,” Reed said. “A busload of folks from South Carolina are visiting Vermont. They want to visit the Vermont Folklife Center and see and hear the archives. They see the Confederate flag. They're gonna take their iPhones out, they're going to click, click, click, they're gonna post on social media, 'If I knew the Confederate flag was in Vermont, I would have stayed in South Carolina.' I ended up writing a letter in support of the kid. But the spinelessness of the business community — not to say that is bad for business — is really appalling to me. What we want from our businesses, what we want from our chambers of commerce, is to hone in on the potential market of Black and Brown consumers, Asian consumers, who don't even know that Vermont exists. They should be proactive about going out and bringing them in. And at the same time make sure that their businesses are not run by knuckleheads. Amen.”
In the 20 years that Reed has been working in Vermont, he has seen a lot of changes. More people of color live in the state. More police departments have been educated about racism and diversity. More businesses are educating their staff and changing their practices. The State of Vermont now has an executive director of racial diversity.
“The landscape has changed considerably since we started,” Reed said. “When I came back in 2001, there were only two organizations that were managed or governed by folks of color. Now there are about 65 around the state, doing all kinds of things. There were five Juneteenth celebrations happening this year, which is a record number. There is a Professionals of Color network in Burlington. There is Allied Vermont up in the Northeast Kingdom. You have two NAACP chapters in the state. So there's a lot of people living and doing things to improve their communities. It feels liberating to me.”
By liberating, Reed means that he can focus on economics and the business community and leave social justice issues to others.
“There are others working from the social and moral vantage points,” he said. “And that's fine. I appreciate the space that they occupy. But the space that I occupy, and that that CRJ and Vermont Partnership occupy — our portfolio of initiatives — focuses on expanding Vermont's economic pie, bringing in more people of color, and making sure those visitors have an experience that might exceed their expectations.”
Racial profiling on the highways still exists, of course.
“But the trend line has been moving in the right direction for a decade,” he said. “It's not where we want it to be, but it is moving in that direction.”
Reed has not stopped working for equity in Vermont.
“Retirement?” he said. “What's that?”
But he can look back with some satisfaction at his 20 years of fighting racism in Vermont, and he was deeply moved when Middlebury offered him a doctorate this year.
“I’m humbled by the fact that persons unknown to me have been following my work all these years and find it worthy of recognition,” he said.
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.