Locals express solidarity with Midd students

When I notice these feelings of fear — ‘Are we going to have to hide the fact that we’re Jewish?’ — I try to think of LatinX, Black and other people of color who cannot hide, and how terrifying that must be.
— Joanna Colwell

MIDDLEBURY— As Election Day approached this year, Middlebury College faculty, staff and administrators started hearing concerns from students about public safety and election-related hostilities.
“The reason … has to do with what is going on in the U.S. today,” Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernandez told the Independent. “We have all seen multiple stories of unarmed Black people being murdered in this country. We have a president who has been prepping for his loss by saying the election is rigged and calling for armed, white, right-wing militias to stand by. Gun sales spiked dramatically before the election.”
In the community, especially after the 2016 election and over the intervening years, students have been accosted by drivers and harassed at local businesses, Fernandez said.
“Faculty and students have been yelled at in town with the N-word. The week before the (2020) election an individual harassed a Black student returning to his house in town and another flashed a White Power sign at a different Black student.”
As student concerns about Election Day bubbled up around campus, Jason Duquette-Hoffman, assistant director of the Privilege & Poverty Cluster in the Center for Community Engagement, reached out to the community for help.
“We want students to know that they are not alone in this time, and that there is community around them for support and assistance,” he wrote in an email blast. “As part of this effort, we are arranging nightly rounds of small groups of faculty, staff and community members to walk and be present along the College Street and Route 30 corridors on campus during election week.”
The college set up 22 volunteer shifts throughout the first week of November — two each evening and all day Tuesday and Wednesday.
“This role is specific to providing student support only,” Duquette-Hoffman wrote. “Those doing rounds are not asked or expected to engage with anyone who may be harassing or intimidating students, or to address any student conduct issues. Radios will be provided to contact Public Safety if there are emergent life safety or medical concerns.”
Volunteer shifts filled up almost immediately.
“We had 75 people participate, and almost a third of them were non-faculty/staff community members,” Duquette-Hoffman told the Independent. “Fifteen volunteered for more than one round, and two volunteers worked four shifts.”
East Middlebury resident and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) member Joanna Colwell helped recruit some of those volunteers, then volunteered herself on Election Eve from 9 p.m. to midnight, walking College Street between Adirondack House and Two Brothers Tavern with Middlebury resident David Hohenschau and Ripton resident Bill McKibben.
It turned out to be a sleepy, snowy Monday night, Colwell said, but she was happy to be walking and showing solidarity with Middlebury’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and other students from historically marginalized communities.
“There was an ask for students who don’t feel safe, and so SURJ did what we do. We showed up,” Colwell said.
“As a Jewish person I feel like I have an ancestral memory of what it’s like to not feel safe in a political climate,” she explained. 
It’s a feeling that has been amplified during the Trump years, she added. “People are openly espousing white supremacy, and it’s made me afraid in a way I have never felt before.”
But, she pointed out, she has white skin and is relatively economically stable:
“When I notice these feelings of fear — ‘Are we going to have to hide the fact that we’re Jewish?’ — I try to think of LatinX, Black and other people of color who cannot hide, and how terrifying that must be.”
It doesn’t take a lot of negative experiences to make people wonder if they’re not welcome, Duquette-Hoffman said.
“Experiences that make us feel unsafe or uncomfortable stand out, especially when they strike at the core of who you are,” he said. “It affects our ability to trust the spaces we’re in.”
And the pandemic has only made things worse.
“Now we’re isolated, which makes it harder to build connections to counter the things that make us feel unsafe,” he explained.
In addition, the vigorous and sometimes quite negative community conversations that took place this summer, after Middlebury College announced it would reopen for the fall semester, have left many students wondering about their places in the local community, and whether or not they’re even wanted here, he said.
As November approached, some students withdrew from the public altogether.
Middlebury sophomore Sophia McDermott-Hughes spoke to several of her classmates for a Nov. 12 story in the Middlebury Campus newspaper (
“Many students of color decided to stay on campus, travel in groups, avoid the main roads and town and remain hyper-vigilant for the duration of election week and beyond,” McDermott-Hughes wrote.
“Jasmin Animas-Tapia ’21 made one last trip into town to stock up on groceries on Nov. 1. She worries that tensions will continue to mount over the coming weeks instead of dying down. Unless absolutely necessary, she does not plan on returning to town before she leaves for the end of the semester (on Nov. 21). 
“As a Black woman, Kaila Thomas ’21 believes she is an easier target for racial violence than male students of color. For the duration of election week, Thomas scarcely left her college housing except to attend in-person classes and eat in the dining hall.”
Thankfully, there were no reports of incidents during community support rounds, Duquette-Hoffman said, and he consistently heard that people appreciated the opportunity to be out walking and to support students. And some students expressed appreciation for that support, he said.
There will be more opportunities for the community to show support for students, he added.
“We want students to feel welcome and safe here every moment of their four years,” he said, “and we know that community members also feel that way.”
In terms of the community itself, there is much work left to be done, Colwell said.
“Just because Trump lost doesn’t mean we as a community don’t have a lot to grapple with.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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