By Ariel Poster
I was astounded that the July 14 article, “Anonymous allegations roil Marlboro College sale,” focused on the anonymity of the victims rather than the serious allegations of abuse being exposed by Black N Brown at Democracy Prep. The allegations are coming from a collective of African American, Afro-Latinx, and Latinx alumni, parents, and faculty who were at under Seth Andrew’s leadership. The story shouldn’t be about questioning the validity of the 350 accounts of abuse and trauma experienced by students, parents, and faculty at Democracy Prep. The story is that the Marlboro community, standing in solidarity with Black N Brown at Democracy Prep, is asking what’s to prevent these abuses against Black and brown bodies from being repeated in Marlboro, Vermont?
I am baffled that the article claims the collective is anonymous and then goes on to quote Zenzile Keith, who shared her story at the July 9 selectboard meeting. Keith, in addition to two other members of the collective, took time out of their lives to share their stories directly with the community. Listening to these testimonies of abuse against children and staff brought me to tears. To simultaneously attempt to discredit people’s stories because they are anonymous while also quoting non-anonymous people is misleading. And there is no mention of former Democracy Prep teacher J LeShaé, who went on record in the VT Digger article, “Questions raised about Marlboro College buyer in 11th hour,” saying, “The worst of it is watching somebody like Seth red-face yell at children and parents, like they’re not human.”
It is negligent journalism to ignore the reasons why some members of the collective may choose to remain anonymous. Instead of asking why former alumni might be afraid to publicly speak out, the Reformer article interviews people who had good experiences at Democracy Prep and are now working on creating the Degrees of Freedom program in Marlboro.
The fact that some people went through the school without having negative experiences in no way disproves the allegations coming from Black N Brown at Democracy Prep.
Part of the strength of the #MeToo movement is recognizing that we need to believe women. Marginalized voices don’t always speak out when they experience trauma because they don’t feel like they have the power to and because reporting it can often cause more trauma. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen when they are finally brave enough to speak. By questioning their legitimacy we diminish their lived experience of abuse and silence their voices. This is another form of abuse. It has been well documented that both Democracy Builders Fund (DBF) and Democracy Prep have a lot of wealth and power backing them up. To speak out against a person and institution yielding power is scary and could lead to backlash and retaliation.
Seth Andrew posted, and then promptly removed, a June 24 Medium article, “Reflections on Race at Democracy Prep,” in which he said, “To those who have critiqued me, or our school’s policies from the past or present, I value your criticism. We all are entitled to have our own opinions based on our lived experiences, and I don’t want anyone to feel silenced for sharing them today, especially if my actions made you feel silenced in the past.” Yet the Degrees of Freedom team, as presented in the July 14 article, attempts to discredit and silence those exact voices and Jazel Smith, a member of the DBF board and a graduate of Democracy Prep, claims they are going “around with a pitchfork calling everyone racist and trying to cancel them.” She says she, “started questioning the credibility of all the postings when one mentioned a student being pushed through a metal detector.” The post she is referencing read, “I became mildly irritated after being made to go through a metal detector, he [Seth Andrew] had the audacity to tell me to ‘get used to it. You will have a lot of problems with the police in the future.’ As a Black man in America, I’m privileged to say, to this day, it is a rare occurrence for me.” Soon after the Reformer article was published, Jay Hepburn put his name to that story and explained it occurred on a school trip, not at the school as Smith had insinuated in her quote to the Reformer.
In a letter Black N Brown at Democracy Prep wrote to the Marlboro community, “Seth Andrew’s Legacy and its Impact on Marlboro College,” they say that they are collecting these stories, “In order to do our part in dismantling systemically racist systems and to give survivors of Democracy Prep the opportunity to heal from past traumas.” They present a list of thirteen questions about governance and oversight, strategic planning, hiring and staffing, and reconciling past harm that the leaders of DBF have yet to publicly answer. Including:
“What percentage of your board members are you planning to have match the demographics of the student base you plan to serve?”
“What formal structures for community, student, and family input are you going to have?”
We, the concerned members of the community, are not attempting to cancel anyone. We want answers to these questions. We want to know how the organization plans to repair past harms and, after they’ve done so, how they plan to insure they don’t continue to uphold white supremacy and repeat the same mistakes.
Eight hundred and ninety four Vermonters signed a petition to stand in solidarity with Black N Brown at Democracy Prep. The petition called for the cancellation of the sale to Democracy Builders because the leadership had yet to demonstrate how they plan to repair past harms and do things differently this time. The petition read, “We should have been speaking out in defense of these voices when they were kids and the harm was happening. We can’t make excuses or go back but now we have an opportunity to stand with them as adults and help insure that this kind of abuse is not perpetuated. Not in Marlboro, Vermont, or anywhere else. If we are silent we too are complicit in perpetuating systemic racism and abuse.”
The Peace and Justice Center of Vermont signed on to the petition and their Executive Director, Rachel Siegel, added this statement:
“The Peace & Justice Center stands in solidarity with Black N Brown at Democracy Prep. As an organization that is committed to anti-racism in all of our work, we are deeply concerned with the sale of Marlboro College to Democracy Builders. The behavior of Seth Andrew, and the legacy of trauma he has left, is not something we need in Vermont. It is not something that should be anywhere. If he is to be here, we demand an earnest and meaningful reckoning with and reparations for his actions. If he is unable to take full accountability for the harms he has caused, we do not want him here. White Vermonters have long posited that they are more liberal and less racist than the rest of the country. We find this notion anathema to the blatant, measurable, systemic racism we see (eg, incarceration rates and traffic stop data by race are worse than national numbers, COVID cases by race are disproportionate, etc) and more subtle interpersonal racism (People of Color in Vermont regularly leave Vermont and express that racism here scares them more than in other parts of the country because of how it’s couched in ‘liberalism’). That said, being ‘less racist’ is a wonderful goal to strive for but we would go further and insist that we must become anti-racist. Asking Mr. Andrew to answer the questions posed by Black n Brown at DP is a small, tangible step in that direction.”
The Reformer article repeated everything the leaders of Democracy Builders told them without verification or questioning. Yet, the voices of Black N Brown at Democracy Prep were called into question because they were mostly coming from anonymous sources. Conversations about racism and how we uphold systems of oppression are difficult and painful. It’s easier to dismiss them and claim they aren’t real. The sale of the Marlboro College campus to DBF and Degrees of Freedom has now been finalized and approved by the Vermont Attorney General but the work is not done. We need journalists who are ready to ask the hard questions and listen to victims. And we need the leaders of Democracy Builders to answer the hard questions and engage with Black N Brown at Democracy Prep and the Marlboro community.
Ariel Poster is a member of the Coalition for Black and Brown students in Marlboro, Vt.