Lawmakers consider funding boost for racial equity office

Lawmakers consider funding boost for racial equity office

Xusana Davis
Xusana Davis, Vermont’s executive director of racial equity, at a Statehouse press conference last year. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Xusana Davis has a lot on her plate. As executive director of Vermont’s Office of Racial Equity, she has been a one-woman operation since Gov. Phil Scott appointed her to the position a year and a half ago.

Now, the governor has proposed additional funding for her office — to the tune of $250,000 — that would support Davis’ expanding workload. So far, key lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee appear to back the plan. The money would largely go toward creating two new staff positions in her office.

According to Davis, the additional funding would be “monumentally impactful.”

“The work is certainly needed,” she told Appropriations Committee members during a virtual meeting Friday morning. “The appetite is there around the state.”

The two additional staffers would help accommodate training requests that have inundated the office over the past year. The new employees would support additional data analysis and participate in the 17 different committees that Davis works with regularly. In her year-and-a-half tenure, Davis has joined nine of those committees.

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“Additional staff, of course, is going to help this office have a presence in all those places, not just those that were required by law, but also those that would really benefit from having an equity lens there,” Davis said.

In recent years, both the executive and legislative branches have called for increased collection of data on race.

During the pandemic, data on race had to be back-collected, after VTDigger reported that there had been inconsistencies in how race data for positive Covid cases was being collected. Davis was involved in efforts to track down that data. Once the information was captured, it showed that Black and Hispanic Vermonters were testing positive for Covid-19 at a disproportionately high rate.

Now, Davis said, “We’ve expanded the instances in which we want to collect race data and as we should. But that also means that we need more eyes and more hands handling those data.”

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And, finally, Davis intends to increase the number of racial equity trainings that her office offers. These trainings have been in high demand over the past year, Davis said. While she’s focused on providing them to state government agencies, towns, nonprofits and corporations have requested them, too. 

“I think one assumption that folks make is that, you know, you go do the rounds and we do one training per agency and the next day everyone’s trained, nobody’s racist, we’re all done here,” Davis said.

At Friday’s meeting, committee members expressed support for the governor’s funding proposal.

“I know you are doing yeoman’s work here,” Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, told Davis. “I think it’s great that there’s a recommendation to expand the work.”

Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Chittenden, also said that he thought there was “widespread” support. But Harrison questioned Davis on her choice of words after she referred to the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police last May, as “murder by the government.”

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“After I got here, six months later the pandemic hit, and then a few months after that we watched another American murdered on camera by the government,” Davis had said. “That really created an influx of interest and desire to move the needle tangibly on equity.”

“You said the government murdered George Floyd, and it was an awful, awful situation but you know we’re all part of the government here,” said Rep. Harrison. “I guess I would choose different words.”

Davis said exculpatory language “clouds the actual events” and absolves responsible parties.

“When we have government actors who commit overreach or corruption or brutality,” Davis said, “every individual really does have a hand in it.”

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