Why do people leave Vermont?
We hear from former Vermonters about their relationship with our state, from the love that brought them here to the disappointments that prompted them to leave.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public's show that answers listener questions about Vermont. In this episode, listener My Le Goel shares her experience growing up here, which included years of racism and bullying until, finally, she left. Now, years later, she’s curious to learn if her experience is unique. Brave Little State’s Myra Flynn investigates.
Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio; for accessibility, we also provide a written version of the episode below.
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Vermont really freaking loves Vermont. So wholeheartedly and completely, in fact, that if you’ve had a hard time living here — and, admittedly, that’s been me at times — it begs the question: What’s our problem? I mean, if we aren’t happy here, there’s gotta be something wrong with us, right?
And I've noticed that if you point out Vermont's shortcomings, some people can get pretty worked up about it. So let this be a warning: Today's episode is all about Vermont’s shortcomings.
“For as long as I can remember, I have always known that I was going to leave Vermont,” said My Le Goel, the listener who submitted this episode’s winning question.
“I had kind of a love-hate relationship with the state,” she added.
My Le's winning question begins, “From me: a former Vermonter…”
… A former Vermonter?
That sounds like an oxymoron. Turns out, My Le needed more than space from Vermont. “I still carry these, like, memories and experiences of not being fully accepted when I was growing up there,” she said.
My Le broke up with Vermont a long time ago. She now lives in Seattle, and her question is about others like her — people who traded in the Green Mountains for more citified skies:
“What's up with the Vermont diaspora? Why did they leave? And what would it take for them to come back?”
The hopeful: My Le Goel
My Le Goel grew up in Marshfield, a small town with a few dirt roads in Washington County. It’s pretty quaint — it even has a weaving school. Today, Marshfield has a population of around 1,500 people. Back when My Le was there in 1990, the population was also around 1,500 people.
In a lot of ways, My Le’s childhood was quintessential, small town, rural Vermont: dirt roads, general stores and a dad who was a logger that everyone knew. I call these perfect Vermont scenes “Norman Rockwell paintings.”
However, My Le’s dad is white. And she is not. So much for the Rockwell.
“I'm an adoptee and I came to the U.S. when I was 4,” she said. “I was adopted by a very large French-Canadian family. I'm from Vietnam, I have another sister from Vietnam and another sister from Korea.”
My Le also said that she and her two sisters were the only three Asians in town: “I had kind of a love-hate relationship with the state, and with the community I was in, which is really hard to say, because it's a really close and tight little community. But, for me, it was really hard to grow up there.”
I wanted to learn more about what My Le meant about having a hard time growing up there. I asked her to write it down in an email instead of saying it into the microphone because I know from experience that saying words like these aloud can be re-traumatizing. (Heads up: The following paragraph contains racist slurs.)
My Le wrote that when she was growing up in Marshfield in the ‘90s, she heard repeated derogatory and racist slurs like “chink,” “gook,” “chinaman” and, in some cases, the "N" word. People told her she was “foreign,” while pulling at the corners of their eyes. People asked her to “speak Asian” or perform martial arts on demand because "every chink knows kung fu." People mocked her with fake Asian accents and made-up languages, and asked her to read Asian characters imprinted on t-shirts. Others made jokes about how “chinks can't drive,” and told her to go back to where she came from.
Eventually, the verbal attacks led to physical abuse: pushing and shoving against the school lockers while calling her racist names. Spitting.
She says there’s more than what she sent me. These descriptions are only the beginning.
And, yeah, that is all bad. But, even worse, according to My Le, was that people didn’t believe her when she tried to explain what was happening. She rarely, if ever, found someone who responded with compassion for her experience.
“I feel like if you say something bad about Vermont, there's a dismissiveness or defensiveness, as anybody would do if you're saying something critical [of something they love],” My Le said. “But instead of saying, ‘Oh, hm, let me think about that. Let me think about that, from your perspective …’ I don't know if I heard that very often.”
Folks in her life didn’t want to break through the Rockwell.
If Vermont is My Le’s ex-lover, she’s been doing what a lot of us do with our exes: stalking us online. She’s subscribed to Seven Days, listens to Brave Little State and even visits now again. When she does, she always makes sure to get a creemee. Chocolate, in particular.
And, as we do our exes, My Le hopes that, someday, Vermont will change:
“Recently, I have started to see some other parts of Vermont that have made me wonder like, ‘Gosh, you know, could I ever move back here?’ she said. “And every single time I think about it, I always remember all the reasons why I left and then I think, ‘No, I can't.’ But then something always kind of makes me curious and draws me back in again. And so I have this push-pull thing with Vermont, particularly as I get older. And so I was just curious, like, there must be other Vermonters that have this push-pull kind of relationship with the state as well.”
The one who got away: Tyeastia Green
One respondent wrote that, in order to return, they would need to see more “jobs that pay comparable wages to out of state.” Another posted they would need to see a “cheaper cost of living.” And another wrote, “Job-willing, I’d move back after grad school.”
Cost of living and jobs seem top of mind when it comes to concerns about living in this state. But the next person I interviewed didn’t have a job issue. In fact, she had a job. A really big one.
“I arrived in Vermont on March 16, 2020. And I left Vermont on March 20, 2022,” said Tyeastia Green, the former Director of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging for the City of Burlington.
She moved here in 2020 from Minneapolis after the City of Burlington recruited her — hard.
“I did turn down this job four times,” she said, “because I was afraid of being in a state that was seemingly so white. And I was afraid of not being able to find community there.
“But one of my friends said to me, ‘Do you want to put out fires or do you want to make real change?’ And, so, my answer to that was to move to Burlington so that I can make real change. That’s why I came, and I don’t regret it. I don’t regret coming to Burlington at all.”
When I looked up the job description for Burlington’s Director of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, it says the position “has a focus on eradicating systemic racism in all forms.” So, you know — no pressure.
“And, when I left Burlington and I got on the plane, I was like, ‘Well, that was cute. You know, we can say that we saw Vermont. But we ain't coming back here.’"
Tyeastia didn’t grow up in Vermont, like My Le did, but it turns out that you don’t have to in order to share a lot of the same feelings and experiences that My Le did. Tyeastia is now back in Minneapolis as their Director of Race and Equity.
Tyeastia and Vermont had a sweet romance, but it was one of those doomed relationships. Because, like in a relationship, all the affection in the world — or, in this case, recruitment efforts — don’t matter if something just ain’t right. Remember, Tyeastia came here to help eradicate systemic racism in Burlington. When she finally arrived, she realized just how much work had to be done. Take a phrase that's used widely in Vermont: "New American."
“Yeah, the ‘New American’ thing threw me for a loop. I remember, it was, like, my first week and I heard someone say, ‘Oh, yeah, the New Americans.’ And it landed on me in a way that my body rejected it,” Tyeastia said.
“I was, like, ‘Oh, what is a New American? What does that mean?’ ‘Oh, you know, the people who immigrated here, or were refugees from, you know, countries in Africa or countries in Asia.’ I was like, ‘… and Russia? And Europe? Australia? Like, are they New Americans too?’ So, for me, it was, like, a way to separate out descendants of enslaved people.”
Tyeastia had a group of friends who Vermont would deem “New American.” So, she decided to try the phrase out on them:
“I have friends from Ecuador, Kenya, Korea. We all got on this Zoom call just to say hi, you know, see how they're doing back home and [for them] to see how I'm doing in Vermont. And I said, ‘All my New Americans!’ They're like, ‘What? What did you just call me? I feel like you just called me the N-word,’ my Ecuadorian friend said. I was like, ‘No, that's what they call you, people like you, here in Vermont. They call you New Americans.’ They didn't like it either.
“And I had the city [of Burlington] stop using the term 'New American,' just full-on stop using it."
When I asked if she found a replacement phrase, Tyeastia said, “Let’s just call them people.”
Tyeastia says Vermont revealed one layer of problematic behaviors at a time, making it noticeable that the change she sought to make would be a heavy lift. And, also, that if she were going to overhaul Burlington's system, it was time to make some friends.
“I really found a home there,” Tyeastia said. “I stayed because I found my people there. I found my Skol crew there."
("Skol crew” refers to a group of Black women in Vermont who were fans of the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. They watched games together every Sunday.)
“And that was enough for me. And, my mom had came out for [Burlington’s] first Juneteenth [celebration]. And she really wanted me to come home bad up until that point. And, she said to me, ‘This is where you belong. And I am now comfortable with understanding that this is where you need to be.’ So in June of 2021, I had no intentions of leaving Burlington anytime soon.”
It was 2021, Tyeastia’s second year in Vermont and the year Juneteenth became a Federal Holiday. It was the first time Burlington observed it, and, thanks to Tyeastia, really celebrated it. Lots of soul food, colorful clothing and music — including some by the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir.
I also performed at this celebration and can attest to how wonderful and welcoming it was. Moments after I arrived, I turned to a friend and said, “This city has never felt so Black. It hasn't ever felt this Black.”
But, for Tyeastia, there were also days when Vermont didn't feel welcoming to her at all:
“There was some really scary moments, you know, going to Northeast Kingdom and seeing all the Confederate flags and all the Trump signs. You just feel like you're in danger. And there's no cell service. And, all of a sudden your GPS doesn't work. That is the scariest feeling. I will never go outside to the Northeast Kingdom again. I would never make that trek to Craftsbury or any of those other ‘Burys’ because of the lack of cell service and the fear that I felt in my my entire body knowing that something could happen and nobody would know where I am and nobody could find me. Nobody could ping my cell location. Like, all of those things. Being afraid that you're going to be run off the road by these massive, you know, trucks is scary. It's scary.”
Those exes of ours. Sometimes they surprise us, scare us, and leave us stranded without a lifeline.
Tyeastia said that, ultimately, she left her job and Vermont because she felt like she couldn’t be effective anymore. So, in March 2022, she packed up and moved.
When I asked what it would take for her to move back, she responded, “Truth and reconciliation.”
“One of the things that bothered me the most about Vermont is that Vermont lies,” she explained, “Vermont has the entire country believing that they’re something that they are not. The entire country believes that Vermont is this uber liberal, you know, uber progressive, very welcoming space. But it is not. There's there's a reason why Vermont is still, you know, one of the whitest places in the country. There's a reason. And this isn't to say that there aren't any Black and brown folks there because there are. When you get there, you're in this bubble, and they say, ‘Oh no, you know, we're we're good here.’ They will push against anything that has to do with the advancement of people of color.”
Tyeastia continued: “I think that Vermont has to stop saying that it's welcoming. Because it's not. It depends on who you are if you are welcomed into Vermont or not. Vermont has to stop saying that, you know, Black lives matter. You go, like, to different areas of Vermont, you go down Church Street, you see all the ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs. But, when you go into those spaces as a Black person, you find out real quick how much you don't matter. So, I think once we start to get different leaders in place across the state of Vermont, once we start to get some more Black and brown folks in those top leadership positions [things will start to change]. I am the first Black leader for the city of Burlington. In 2020. That's crazy.
“And would I come back? Absolutely ... I would come back to Burlington (I’m not gonna say Vermont) if things are different there, if the representation looks like me,” she added.
My Le Goel, the Brave Little State listener who submitted the question that inspired this story, did so because, well, she wants to know if it’s safe to come back.
“Every time I go back, I get that little itch and that little hearkening,” she said. “You know, like, ‘Oh, it's so beautiful.'”
In My Le’s 18 years here, she was bullied, taunted, mocked and physically abused for being adopted and Vietnamese. In order for her to make the trek back home, there’s a lot to overcome. And then, there’s this implied third part to My Le’s question: Say we do get those who left to come back … how do we get them to stay?
The matchmaker: Monique Priestly
To find one answer to this question, I visited Bradford, a fairly remote town south of the Northeast Kingdom near the New Hampshire border. My tour guide? Monique Priestly.
“So we're starting off in the podcast recording studio …”
Monique showed me around The Space on Main, a coworking space she founded in 2018. It’s on — you guessed it — Main Street in Bradford.
“ … And then we have green screens, teleprompters, video cameras, DSLR cameras, lighting equipment…”
Monique grew up in New Hampshire just across the river from Bradford. She left for grad school and then moved back. Now, Monique is trying to encourage others to follow her lead and move to Bradford, both to find community and, also, really good internet.
“Yeah, so, definitely, people were struggling with broadband,” Monique said, “But this sense of, like, isolation is, like, that's kind of the point of this even more than access to broadband.”
Monique has been working remotely for a lot longer than most, and she said she grew tired of it pretty quickly. “Working on your couch next to your fridge with your cats and your dogs and your partner by yourself at home, it's, like, it's not that much fun after a while.”
So, she created The Space on Main, a nonprofit community-based coworking space. Folks who desire a little company while they work (and, yes, fast WiFi) can get a membership. The space is also a conference center, arts and culture haven, gallery and studio for podcasts or video. Monique, who’s currently running for state representative in her spare time, told me there are currently 37 members. She’s had fun playing “community matchmaker.”
“Like, so, for instance, like we had, we had an artisan market, and we had a family whose mother's Korean and she makes Korean food … They came here and they're like, ‘Vermonters can't handle spice! They're not gonna like our food,’ like, all this stuff. The first market they did, they took a chance on us and they sold out in an hour. And they were like, ‘Whoa!’”
I asked Monique if her goal is to welcome, connect, or retain people. “All three,” she said, “I'm definitely trying to keep people here and everything is trying to connect people.”
In the search to answer that third part of My Le’s question, about whether or not Vermont has changed since she was growing up here, perhaps the lesson really is that change, in Vermont, begins with one small town at a time.
The pattern breaker: Laura Fillbach
Next, I spoke to Laura Fillbach. She lives in Cleveland but still owns the house she used to live in in Calais. “We rent it out right now. And so it, you know, again, that's part of my calculus about coming back. It, you know, is definitely something we could do.”
So, technically, Laura already has housing lined up if she ever decides to return. But there are a few things stopping her. For one, she has first-hand experience with the job complexities here: “If I saw, maybe, I don't know, like a clear job or a path or something, then I would certainly be interested in that.”
She and her husband had those hard to find “good jobs” when they lived in Vermont. He worked as a civil engineer, and she worked in public media. But they both had to travel far and wide to make it happen. Her husband even worked out of state. Laura said it took a toll:
“I had been commuting up to Burlington for many years for work, and then for school. And my husband … he got a job at Dartmouth. So we were literally, like, he was going an hour-plus south, I was going, like, an hour to Burlington. And I was, like, I just, like, I love it where we live, but I can't just drive all the time.”
Jobs and housing aside, Laura and her family also left for other familiar reasons, like lack of diversity. The only difference from question-asker My Le Goel and former Burlington Director of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Tyeastia Green is that Laura is white. And, though she admits she could never experience the particular difficulties My Le and Tyestia did, she struggled in her own way.
“I think that people think we’re liberal, we’re not racist, we are all about equity,” she said. But her experience was that there wasn’t even enough diversity in her community to practice being an ally.
If Vermont was Laura’s lover, I’d say she broke up for a familiar reason: She saw some bad habits, didn’t like ‘em and didn’t want to participate in them anymore. She knew the only way to break them was to leave. So, five years ago, she moved to Cleveland and purposefully moved to a brown and Black neighborhood.
“I think that a lot of white people that grow up around a lot of other white people, they never have to think about race,” she reflected. “I mean, that's who I was. You know, growing up for a long time, it was like, something hypothetical, where it's like, well, yes, of course I believe in, like, not being racist and equality and all of that. But it's, like, you never have to really put your values to the test.”
These days, Laura has brown and Black friends, neighbors and colleagues, none of which she had in Vermont. And it’s hard for her to imagine going back to the Vermont bubble:
“I guess what it would take for me to feel more comfortable coming back is, like, if I felt like I had a clear way to to not feel like I'm returning to this idyllic place and, and going back to a life where I don't have to think about these things. And, for me, it would be easy to do. And I just would be afraid that that would happen.”
The wounded romantic: Reuben Jackson
If you’ve made it this far, it means you’ve been pretty darn tolerant of my love metaphors. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who likes them so much! Meet Reuben Jackson:
“You know, sitting a few rows back in terms of geography, it has allowed me to love and appreciate things about Vermont maybe more. Because maybe it's like the couple that breaks up and they get along like better when they’re not together.”
Reuben used to grace the Vermont Public (formerly VPR) airwaves as our Friday Night Jazz host from 2012 to 2018. Before that, he was a teacher here in the state and, before that, he attended Goddard College, which is just outside of Montpelier in Plainfield. He ended up there after seeing it in a magazine.
“I’m flipping through and there’s an ad for a college. And I showed it to my father. My father said, ‘No way, no way you go into some weird school like that.’ My mother said, ‘You have a year. I'll work on him.’ I mean, it's not the only place I focused on but I had that feeling that Goddard would be OK.”
Reuben currently lives in Washington, D.C., and works as an archivist at the Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, which are based at the University of the District of Columbia. And he’s a Black man who still deeply, deeply loves Vermont — that was never an issue for him. The problem was, Vermont didn’t love him back very well.
“It's an uppercase paradox, for sure,” he said, “but it is a home of mine. So much of my family of choice is in Vermont. It is probably, in that sense, more of a home than D.C. is for me. And, you know, I come back and the feeling I have — I mean, of course, I still drive with my license and the cup holder, because the police…”
Reuben left Vermont, and our organization, four years ago. Ever since, the push and pull between who he is, what he values, where he’s from, where he wants to be and where he is most safe has weathered him. There’s a weariness to him.
“When you're younger, I think you have more chops to ‘fight the Man,’ the proverbial Man, but I began to feel like like old NFL running backs: You get enough forearms upside the head, I'm like, I don't know. I don't know. Some people have more long-range resilience than others.”
If Vermont is Reuben's lover, I think it was an abusive one. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who tried so hard for so long to stay here but, eventually, the whiplash between the beauty and the mistreatment — that paradox he speaks about — beat him into submission.
And, the worst part, which also aligns with the abusive partner metaphor, is that when he did try to speak up about it no one believed him. He used an analogy to describe his experience: Imagine a dog bites you in your butt…
“And then you go to the doctor and say, ‘I'm bleeding! This dog bit me.’ And people said, ‘Are you sure? We're the first state to outlaw dogs biting you in the butt.’ And I think institutional racism in Vermont is deeply, deeply dug in. So there's that. And then there's the equally fervent denial of its existence,” he said to sum it up.
I asked Reuben how he can love a place that’s racist. “If you live in a racist society, and I feel like we do, you are going to get your licks, you know, so to speak,” he responded. “And I know, potholes and everything in all, it's — you know, I'm pointing to my heart — it's there. It is there.”
Since there’s no simple answer to My Le’s question about the Vermont diaspora, I want to end with something more open-ended. It’s a poem written by Reuben Jackson. And it speaks to the complicated nature of leaving your lover — or, in this case, a place that you really love.
Sunday in East Glover
East Glover, Vermont
Two lane roads
Twist like an awkward boy
At a house party
Chamber Of Commerce
Autumnal breezes say
“It’s ok to be
an October smitten brother
in a corny plaid jacket
“I too fell in love
With technicolor fairy tales
About this place”
I am a concrete weary man
En route to a tryst with trees
I wave to blushing hills-
check the rear view mirror
suffering from a draught
It is as calm as a day in which
my blackness is unsettling
God is watching football
On a flat screen
I share my wishes
With the sky
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Thanks to My Le Goel for the great question.
Myra Flynn reported this episode and did the mix and sound design. Editing and additional production from the Brave Little State team: Angela Evancie, Josh Crane and Myra Flynn. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions, the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir and Myra Flynn. Special thanks to Peter Hirschfeld, Heidi Kalb, Louise Brill, Kate Blofson and Joe Pace.
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