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Monument dedicated to racial ‘Embrace and Belonging’ unveiled in Burlington’s Old North End

Youth members of Burlington's King Street Center join Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak cut a large ribbon wrapped around a sculpture of a bird
Samantha Watson
/
Vermont Public
Members of Burlington's King Street Center join Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak in unveiling the Dewey Park memorial on June 26.

Burlington officials on Wednesday unveiled a monument dedicated to racial equality in one of its neighborhood parks.

The monument — a tall metal structure of two birds, with smaller bird shapes fluttering up their wings — was created by artist Ai Qui Hopen and was designed to represent racial inclusion and belonging in Burlington.

The sculpture, titled Embrace and Belonging, is now a permanent fixture of Dewey Park in Burlington’s Old North End neighborhood. At the unveiling ceremony, Hopen said the sculpture features Sankofa birds, looking back to gain wisdom.

“We can see the two birds leaning together, symbolizing we cannot stand up without each other's support,” she said. “Together, we can build the bridge of a tomorrow, the small birds representing we are all a piece, we are all a little piece of a great whole.”

Burlington Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak said the artwork will serve as a representation of the city’s identities and values.

“This Embrace and Belonging monument will serve as a reminder to all of us to lean into equity work, to challenge our biases and to always work to learn and understand,” she said.

A female artist stands in front of her sculpture of a bird in Burlington's Dewey Park
Samantha Watson
/
Vermont Public
Artist Ai Qui Hopen stands in front of her sculpture, Embrace and Belonging.

It hasn’t been an easy road to get the monument installed.

In 2022, when the city released its plans for the sculpture, community members voiced concerns including about its proportions. Residents worried adding a monument of its size to the small grassy area would pose difficulties or deter the farmers market that is held there during the summer.

Seven Days reported that some residents felt a lack of communication from the city perpetuated the very sense of dismissiveness the monument stands against.

At the podium Wednesday, Burlington City Councilor Melo Grant acknowledged the controversy.

“I know this project at times has been a little controversial because there was some communication issues,” Grant said. “And there was some issues with regards to the first picture that was sent out that was really out of scale, and it made people nervous. But the bottom line is this: It's here now and it's beautiful.”

Hopen, the sculpture’s artist, ultimately reduced the size of the sculpture after feedback from the public. The version unveiled this week is a smaller proportion and does not include the bench featured in the original drafts.

“Public art is one of those things that really brings attention to what community needs are, and so it ended up really being beneficial for us as city staff to hear what people were thinking and feeling about the site,” said Sara Katz, assistant director of Burlington City Arts, which helped with the monument. “So it was an opportunity for engagement that might not have happened without the public sculpture.”

The sculpture was commissioned in 2021 by Burlington's Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Office.

Over the last few years, the REIB office has experienced a string of resignations that have gutted the department.

Last month, Kimberly Carson, the director, resigned after 18 months in the position. The mayor’s office announced that it won’t be filling her position in addition to other department seats to try and balance a $14.2 million budget shortfall.

Carson’s resignation comes after that of Tyeastia Green, the department’s first director, who had a rocky relationship with former Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. Green departed in 2022 to take a similar position in Minneapolis. Both cities have conducted investigations into Green’s handling of events during her tenure.

An outside review of the City of Burlington’s previous Juneteenth events didn’t find any evidence of embezzlement or fraud, but said there appeared to be “mis-management or carelessness” leading up to the 2022 Juneteenth event.

The work of former members of the department was mentioned in the unveiling ceremony.

“And I remember a conversation with former REIB director Tyeastia Green,” Grant said. “And I remember how excited she was. She's like ‘I'm bringing art to the Old North End’. And I just thought that was wonderful. Because in her short time here, she had been very intentional about learning about our different communities and the different people who live in our communities.”

At the ribbon cutting ceremony put on by the mayor’s office, members from the city’s parks and recreation department spoke, as well as leaders from city council. Students from the Integrated Arts Academy, which abuts the park, shared artwork and poetry.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Samantha Watson is Vermont Public's news intern.
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