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Vt. Racial equity director Xusana Davis reflects on new report to lawmakers

The cover page of a 2023 document reporting on racial equity in Vermont, not to a photo of an African-American woman in a white suit and black blouse standing before a gilded door at the Vermont statehouse
Xusana Davis, Vermont's Executive Director of Racial Equity, delivered her annual report to the legislature this month.

An annual report to the Vermont legislature assesses the state's progress on racial equity over the past year and looks at challenges to be tackled in the years ahead. Xusana Davis, the Executive Director of Racial Equity for the State of Vermont, joins host Mikaela Lefrak to dive into the report's findings.

They discuss the creation of the Division of Racial Justice Statistics, state working groups focused on equity, and other research and projects coming out of her department.

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: What should Vermonters take away from the report?

I suppose the biggest takeaway is that advancing equity and all of its form is urgent work. Yet paradoxically, it is also slow work, because undoing complex systems or changing and updating complex system takes a lot of time. It takes thoughtfulness, it takes intentionality, and it takes courage. When you have multi branch governments, when you have a complex society, not everybody possesses all of those qualities. The short story is we're working on it, and the 'we' in 'we are working on it' needs to continue to expand to include everybody, because everyone does play a role in advancing equity.

There's a line in the report that reads, 'Some parts of state government remain committed to upholding the status quo at the expense of greater inclusion.' It seems like that like kind of speaks to what what you were just saying, that there are some maybe key players here that aren't committed to this mission and vision yet. Can you elaborate a little on that?

That's correct. Yeah. I mean, we have made a lot of progress, I think, in state government on equity. Between me and my staff, we have been to, I think, nearly every single agency department or units, for educational purposes, for policy review, we sit on hiring panels in so many different departments. We really try to have a very broad role as consultants, as supporters, as researchers, as educators. Because of that, we've made the rounds a lot, and we have interacted with people whose reception to our work ranges from being extremely onboard, passionate and proactive, and we have a lot of those. On the other end of the spectrum, we have some folks who genuinely believe that equity is not a problem in Vermont, that the work to advance it is more trouble than they think its worth, or that this doesn't concern them or their agencies somehow, which is, of course, incorrect, because we know that inequity shows up in nearly every facet of life and governance.

Another section of this report takes a look at pay equity in state government, if certain groups are making more money on average than other groups. I'm wondering what your data has found so far about Vermont when it comes to pay equity in state government.

Pay parity is a big challenge. It's something that our office is going to look more closely at this year, as planned, not because it's certainly a surprise, this is something we had planned to work on this year, pay parity across state government. Now, I came from a different jurisdiction, and so the civil service title structure was a little bit different, but it's a similar concept. You have a fixed title, and you try to find positions that fit within that title based on the nature of their duties, then you have a pay scale that is supposed to come with. We find that when it comes to women, when it comes to people of color, when it comes to people who may not have gone to prestigious schools, or what have you, the same work, or the same type of work, is often compensated very differently depending on the identity of the person.

One thing that we find is that there are disparities within the same pay grades, or within the same job title, based on who's in the role or who did the hiring, or when they did the hiring. Another thing that we note is that the pay gap between state staff of color and state staff who are white is still disparate. People of color in state service, on average, are still paid less than white employees who are in state service. We also do note in the report that some of this may be accounted for by the fact that the population of people of color in Vermont is younger overall, and that is true also in state service. Therefore, there may be match up there with the percentage of people of color in State service who are represented in entry level positions, compared to the percentage of people of color in state service who are represented in longer tenure or managerial or supervisory roles. We do acknowledge that that may play a small role in it. But overall, if you look at the year over year trends, this has been a consistent pattern that people of color are paid statistically less than white identified staff members in state service.

Well, speaking of the importance of having that data, year after year after year, to be able to see these trends, you recently oversaw the creation of the division of racial justice statistics in the past year. Could you tell us a little bit about like what your vision is for this division of racial justice statistics?

By statute, its focus is going to be very, very deep into criminal justice matters. There are a lot of different entities working on criminal justice in Vermont. What we don't want to do if be duplicative. We don't want to just add to the noise and the research that's already been happening on this topic. Instead, what we want to do, of course, in addition to fulfilling our statutory mandate, is to say, Okay, we're looking at criminal justice data. But really, let's make our focus on the upstream factors that are influencing these data. These data are pointing to certain patterns that are emerging in spaces that are not originating in criminal justice.

For example, we know that job absenteeism is a very, very close, downstream impact of lack of transportation access. You may have lack of transportation access because you live in a more rural part of the state. Maybe you live in a more rural part of the state because you cannot afford to live in another part of the state. Maybe that is because of your employment situation. Well, guess what, if you've been experiencing discrimination in your employment and hiring, then all of that is kind of a cascading impact, and that could end up being the difference between whether you are stably housed, stably employed, and therefore, you know, whether you're able to survive in a difficult world to survive in or you had to turn to other activities to be able to survive out there. That's just one example. The point is that, yes, we're going to look at criminal justice data, but insofar as they are factors and impact of other sectors.

I'm also curious to hear more about this one section of the report on working groups. I'm guessing many folks who work in offices might be familiar with this concept of, you identified a problem, and having somebody in the office say, oh, let's create a working group on it, and there's not always clear takeaways from what that working group accomplishes. That's something that you point out in this report that there's a growing number of working groups in state government focused on issues of racial equity, criminal justice, and more, but that number might be growing a little bit too quickly.

Yes. One of the things that we like to caution people about is they want to do the work, but they mistake what the work actually is for what they would like the work to be. It is often the case that people think that going to 90 minute training, or sitting on a work group, or doing a book club is doing justice work. It is certainly a component of it, but in and of itself, none of those activities is going to move the needle in a way that is really, really going to be impactful. And so one of the things that we like to caution people about is that if you're going to create a group, what is that group's purpose? What is it function? What is the goal that is looking to reach? Is there someone else already doing that work? Are we going to be duplicating efforts? Can we combine efforts? And so those are some of the considerations that I think sometimes are not made, or are not asked or are not thought of, because a lot of times people think that the creation of a group itself is an achievement. I don't want people to fall into that pattern.

There's a lot of enthusiasm around justice and equity. That's a wonderful thing. Sometimes that enthusiasm leads us to create a lot of parallel efforts happening simultaneously because we sometimes equate a crowded field with an effective field. Creating dozens of working groups to address equity, many of which have a lot of overlap, it feels a little bit like expecting me to eat faster because you've given me three forks. That's not as effective as focusing our efforts into fewer but more effective and well resourced working groups. That's another really important part of this, being able to analyze, are we creating disparities between these working groups? And if so, how is that impacting the state's outcomes in terms of the policy that we're creating?

Xusana, if you could leave people with the key message of this report, what would it be?

When you're doing any kind of equity or justice work, not even related just to race, but any other forms of equity, it is very easy for us to fall into a pattern of just identifying what's not working. We try to be very intentional about saying, listen, we're also successful in other ways, we're finding good practices, and we are hopeful. I always like to make sure that people understand that, yes, we've got to be able to highlight our shortcomings in order to be able to address them. And also, we're allowed to celebrate this work. We're allowed to find pleasure in successful efforts. And we're allowed to have joy. You know, that comes through things like community events, it comes through things like, celebrations of culture and heritage, and it comes through things like saying, hey, you know what, we did well on this, we tried hard on this, and I think that it has to be that multifaceted approach. As anyone read this report, or any of our other reports, it's just important that we do acknowledge not just what's not working, but also what is working. That can serve as a model, not just for other parts of Vermont, but also for other jurisdictions around the country, who may not be as far along as we are in in some of this work.

We hear from a couple of student athletes from Middlebury Union High School, and their decision not to attend a basketball game against the Enosburg High School due to what the Middlebury team has called three separate incidents of racist attacks from Enosburg spectators. Since you're leading these these efforts in Vermont, to address racial equity, I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on this incident.

My thoughts are going to be a little bit more broad, because I think that this is touching on an important issue about the similarities, differences and overlap between different levels of government. Yes, we're at the state level, trying to lead statewide efforts and statewide are really two connected but different things. What's really important about cases like these is that there is such an important role that local government and local communities play. It is often the case that people will look to the state or to the federal government and say, you've got to do something about this. And really, what we're looking to do is to help communities feel empowered enough to also step in and participate in these kinds of efforts.

When I hear about particular schools, teams, towns or supervisory unions who are making strides on this on this topic, it's extremely important because so much of what we know about disparity in the United States manifests at the local level. What that means is we've got to be able to find solutions at the local level as well, especially in Vermont, where we have things like local control and a very, very enthusiastic spirit of small community leadership. What that really means is that we bear, yes, the privilege, but also the responsibility of addressing these issues. When they come up at the local level, I do see that there is a statewide lens to it. However, because every community is unique, we have to be able to listen to impacted people and have them participate in finding the solutions that are going to work for them, and also for the prospective members of our communities who aren't here yet, but who in the future are going to benefit from what we do today.

Broadcast on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, at noon.

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

Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined Vermont Public in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.