Acts Of Intolerance Rattle Craftsbury

Jul 9, 2016

Craftsbury is known for its movie-set perfect common, surrounded by a white split rail fence that mirrors the surrounding white clapboard buildings –  including the buildings of Sterling College. But beneath the town’s bucolic surface, tensions have built up this summer.

This week residents of Craftsbury were quietly getting ready for the town’s annual Antiques and Uniques Festival. Tents went up on Craftsbury Common, the grass was trimmed and boxes of signs were brought out to direct visitors to the event.

The festival starts Saturday morning. It’s a celebration of local crafts, food, music and, of course, antiques. Most of the visitors to the festival will pass by the Sterling College admissions building, where a rainbow pride flag hangs prominently on the front porch.

The festivities belie an undercurrent of tension that has been building on campus and in town for nearly a month. Sterling College President Matthew Derr says it started in mid-June, after the mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando.  

"We thought it was meaningful to recognize the terrible events in Orlando by hanging a pride flag on the front of our faculty office building and our admission office," says Derr. "A beautiful rainbow flag right there on North Craftsbury Road, and we were surprised that the next day that that building was egged."

It didn’t stop with the rainbow flag. As a gay man, the next incident struck Derr closer to home – both literally and figuratively. The incidents were first reported July 2 by VtDigger. 

"My partner and I live here on campus and we fly the American flag from our home," he says. "And as all flags were after the Orlando event, our flag was flying at half-mast. And it was ripped from the front of the house and thrown to the ground."

Derr says, in the weeks since, lawn signs were stolen from the campus.

A series of Black Lives Matter lawn signs have been stolen out from under the college's sign.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"We have had a series of Black Lives Matter signs on campus and they will occasionally disappear," he explains.

Derr calls the campus Black Lives Matter signs an expression of free speech.

"Sterling is a diverse community and we want it to be a place that embraces folks from all different backgrounds," he says. "But the more important part is that we’re part of a bigger world. And recognizing the movement is important and also recognizing that having that sign there is really important to members of our community."

Down in Craftsbury Village at the town clerk’s office, select board member Susan Houston echoed the sentiments of many townspeople, calling the incidents saddening.

"We all consider our town to be a very friendly and neighborly town where people help each other out, and that gets proven again and again," she says. "So to have this tragedy happen is a sadness in our town for all of us."

Across the street at the Craftsbury General Store, resident Natanya Bittman says it’s a pattern of behavior that has taken the community by surprise.

Members of the wider Craftsbury community, including those gathered at this general store, say they're surprised and saddened by recent events at the college.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

"So it seems like there have been a number of small incidents, instances that, added up, are beginning to form a picture of something rather negative that seems to be laying somewhat hidden underneath a really smooth community," she says.

But Bittman says she thinks these are likely the actions of a lone individual. “Because it’s just been these kinds of one-off things happening – the stealing of a sign or the egging of a door – that seem almost rather juvenile," she says.

Bittman, whose husband works at the college, says the incidents have been addressed at Sterling’s weekly meetings for staff, students and faculty. But she thinks there needs to be a conversation with the wider Craftsbury community.

"That's why higher education exists, to try to break down those barriers and to be able to create a civic dialog that lifts people up." - Sterling College President Matthew Derr

And that’s exactly what college President Matthew Derr says he has planned after the majority of students return in the fall. In the meantime, Derr says the college will continue to replace its Black Lives Matter lawn signs and prominently display the pride flag in response to what he calls ugliness.

"We're not immune from that ugliness," he says. "It's here, it's part of the fabric of our country. And that's why higher education exists, to try to break down those barriers and to be able to create a civic dialog that lifts people up. And I see that flag as a way of lifting up and engaging in a civic dialog."

Craftsbury expects thousands of visitors for Saturday's annual Antiques and Uniques Festival.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Organizers of today's Antiques and Uniques Festival bill it as a "summer event of unique and inspired community." Perhaps some festival-goers will find inspiration in Sterling College’s efforts to highlight diversity.