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'Not The Problem Of The Oppressed': Incoming Rutland NAACP President Talks Priorities, Exposure

Mia Schultz
Mia Schultz, Courtesy

The Rutland branch of the NAACPwill soon have new leadership. Mia Schultz is poised to take over as president of the organization, as its founding leader, Tabitha Moore steps down.The NAACP has advocated for civil rights nationally since 1909, but the Rutland branch has been in operation for just about four years. It boasts 550 members, making it the second largest chapter in New England.

In addition to her new role, Mia Schultz is also on the board of the advocacy group Rights & Democracy and is the chair of the Bennington Town Democratic Party.

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Mia Schultz about her priorities as she moves into her new position with the Rutland NAACP. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So what are your immediate priorities for this organization, as you take over as president?

You know, immediately I need to learn the branch.

I need to consult with the founding members and the members who have dedicated their time and energy to this branch.

And then, you know, I come from a place of advocacy and empowerment of marginalized people. So that will be really a focus of mine: to advocate and empower others while still working on the great work that Tabitha Moore and the NAACP branch have been doing on state-level issues and also local-level systems that have been problematic for people of color.

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In terms of policy, are there certain things that you want to hit the ground running on?

Really, I want to concentrate on our local Rutland chapter and the Rutland area – and that includes Bennington, where I live, too – trying to look at school systems and look at their police systems and how how they're making changes, because we know that that's happening now.

And we want to see how how we fit in, and that's going to take membership and buy in from our membership, to be involved in that.

This year, of course, has seen a reckoning on the national level with policing and racial bias and how Black Americans are treated by the police. What do you think that conversation should look like as we move into 2021, particularly here in Vermont and the area in which you work?

Well, the conversation needs to be with the people most impacted, not about the people who are most impacted. I think that's what is missing. So first, it starts with conversations with the people who are most impacted by the issues. And then we go from there.

"The conversation needs to be with the people most impacted, not about the people who are most impacted. I think that's what is missing." - Mia Schultz, incoming president of the Rutland Area NAACP

It takes opening up minds and real commitment to, like people say, having these difficult conversations about race and listening, and then coming up with a collaborative plan.

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Tabitha Moore, who's the founder of this chapter of the NAACP, has been pretty open and public about some of the harassment that she's faced as a prominent Black woman living in Rutland County. Do you have concerns for your own safety as you take on a more prominent advocacy role in this position as NAACP president?

Absolutely. Of course. Of course I do.

I see what's happening all over the state, all over the nation. And I've seen what happened to Kiah Morrisin Bennington. I would be remiss if I didn't say I wasn't scared.

But I do tell you this: that even without this visibility, this newfound visibility that's happening, I had already been scared to walk out my door. I have already had to have discussions with my family and my children about safety. We have buddy systems, I've had to teach them things that go above and beyond the scope, because Vermont has not been super welcoming to people of color – at least my family, since moving here. So we already walk and move in spaces with caution.

I do worry about it. And I also worry about knowing that there's not a police or a system in place that will necessarily protect me.

So it is the support that we have in this network of people throughout Vermont that sustains me.

Obviously, there's not an easy fix there. But I'm curious what you think could alleviate some of that fear, in the immediate term, in terms of being a person of color and feeling more comfortable walking around and existing in public in Vermont? 

So, you know, that's an interesting question that I shouldn't have to answer because I am not the one who is causing myself danger or harm. Right?

Those are questions that we need to ask our community and the community who has been complicit in allowing that to happen to people and families like mine.

And that starts at the systems, and it starts at the people who are leading our government. They need to be the example for the rest of our communities. They need to go and do the personal work that is required to see where they sit in their privilege and where white supremacy, dominant culture, shows up in their lives.

They need to model that to their community, or they need to step down if they can't.

You know, this is not my problem. This is not the problem of the oppressed; this is the problem of the oppressors.

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I want to ask a little bit more about the NAACP as an organization. It's been around for over 100 years, organizing for racial justice. But the Black Lives Matter movement of the last six years or so has primarily been led by a more diffuse network of activists, which aren't necessarily affiliated with more legacy organizations like the NAACP.

Given that, I'm curious what you see as the NAACP's role right now in the racial justice movement.

You know, I think there's room for all of us. I think there's room for Black Lives Matter, and I think there's room for NAACP. I think that the more organizations and groups that there are whose goal is for equity, the better.

"It starts at the people who are leading our government. They need to be the example for the rest of our communities. They need to go and do the personal work that is required to see where they sit in their privilege and where white supremacy, dominant culture, shows up in their lives." - Mia Schultz, incoming president of the Rutland Area NAACP

So NAACP, you're right, has a legacy. And so that is obviously something that people recognize and get that name recognition from. So there's a home for people who feel a bit more secure with the name and the legacy that comes with the NAACP. And then there are people who find homes at, you know, the Greater Burlington Black Lives Matter organizations or The Root Social Justice Center, which is over in Brattleboro.

There are a lot of organizations out there that we can all participate in, and we all have the same goal, right, which is equity. It's just a matter of finding your home in those places.

More from Vermont Edition: How Do We Build A Welcoming Vermont?

Mia, I'm curious, if we were to talk to you, say, a year from now, a year into your tenure as the head of the Rutland chapter of the NAACP, what would you hope to say you have accomplished or have under your belt in that first year?

Oh, I love that question. You know, honestly, I've been doing advocacy work for a minute here -- just a couple of years, a few years here -- and some of the most impactful things that have happened didn't happen in the media, didn't happen out loud. They happened in rooms and they happened to individuals.

And a year from now, if I can say that I have helped or this organization has helped an individual who has been marginalized, who has been the victim of racial violence to feel like they belong in Vermont, then I feel like I have succeeded. That is my measure.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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