At our core, every one of us has an intuitive sense of what is fair, and what is unfair. This begins early. Whether it’s folded into the backseat banter of a family road trip, or whether it plays out on the elementary school playground, every kid comes to see the world in terms of what’s right, and what’s just. As we grow, this understanding becomes more nuanced. We gain clarity about our own values, and we come to terms with the fact that others don’t always share those values. We also encounter seemingly indelible systems of social stratification. With each discovery, our sense of fairness grows more complex.
One of the through-lines for this semester has been our ongoing journey to understand equity–and to see human systems through that lens. Back in September, we began by introducing several conceptual frameworks. Some of these are best illustrated visually.
Earlier in the semester, students deepened their understanding of equity by working with a variety of community partners. Highlights include our time with UVM Professor, Matt Kolan, and Abenaki artist and educator, Melody Walker Brook. In October, students screened Bess O’Brien’s documentary, I Am From Here, and discussed the film with BSD Administrator Bonnie Johnson-Aten. Many other collaborations with community partners featured an equity lens, but one particular project stands out.
In late-September, officials from Burlington’s City Hall met with BCL students at our home base. Brian Lowe, the City’s Chief Innovation Officer, and Belan Antensaye, Community Development Specialist, introduced students to a unique initiative: The Burlington Equity Report. As described in a previous blog post, just over a year ago, the city decided to apply BTVStat, its data-driven decision-making system, to “evaluating ‘equity’ within [the city’s] departments and programs” (2018 Equity Report). In the months leading up to the 2018 report’s publication, BCL’s inaugural student cohort collaborated with City Hall.
This year, BCL students continued and expanded this effort. This took two principal forms. First, students worked directly with Brian Lowe, Belan Antensaye, and BTV STAT Analyst, Carolyn Felix to consult on a draft of the 2019 report. In small groups, students shared their insight on everything from the metrics themselves, to the operationalization of equity, to the visualization and illustration of the city’s data. In addition, BCL students presented their own research to the Equity Report Team, and to Mayor Miro Weinberger.
When Brian and Belan visited BCL in September, they made an authentic request, asking BCL students to add a qualitative layer to the city’s primarily quantitative data set. Throughout the semester, students posed a standardized question about equity to each of our 50+ community partners. They collected responses, coded them, and presented their qualitative data in multiple ways. This experience gave students a chance to engage in real research, and to be taken seriously as researchers. Their presentation at City Hall was impressive, and will have a real impact the 2019 Equity Report.
Overall, this project was engaging, challenging, purposeful, and empowering. The following are excerpts from three different students’ reflections — and a final reflection from Belan Antensaye, one of our partners at Burlington City Hall.
After leaving our consultancy at City Hall, my thoughts were filled with questions such as, “What is being overlooked?” Or, “What should be expanded upon?” One thing I was left thinking about was where sustainability lives in this report — especially the areas of environmental health and stewardship. Brian and I addressed this in a small-group conversation, and struggled to find an appropriate place for it in the report. I still feel that it is a topic that will only grow in importance moving forward, in this era of climate change, and that it may be worth it to investigate some of the different areas of sustainability that are quantifiable in our city. That said, even though there are areas to improve, this remains important work. Collectively, all this thinking just signifies to me the space that we have to grow within this wonderful project.
I am grateful for being hosted at City Hall, and invited to collaborate on this important project. I found the time to be engaging, productive and useful. Overall, our class was happy with the data we collected from asking our equity question to community members we worked with. Our answers had variety and were unique to each person. It was powerful to open space for community members to critique the city and I applaud our city partners for being vulnerable in creating an Equity Report to begin with.
Our meeting left me with a lot to think about. Specifically, I wonder if the people who are interested in reading the report are the ones who are already most represented in the city. In my eyes, this is an equity issue, and would love to see the report being distributed to as much of Burlington as possible to eliminate any accessibility problems. If the people who read it are the people who already care, then it won’t have as much power.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of working on developing this year’s Equity Report for the city of Burlington. It was a unique opportunity to be able to converse with adults who really collaborated with us. I felt that my voice was heard and respected, which was powerful. I hope to continue to work with the city as the project closes out and am excited to see the final product that grows from our collaboration.
I want to acknowledge the depth of the discussions that our BCL Program had with our city partners. After presenting our Research Project I felt that the city showed a lot of interest in our ideas. At the moment we were presenting I was sort of nervous, but as our engagement with each other increased the conversation began to flow easily.
Even though we had a productive and rich conversation, there are areas we didn’t spend as much time on. I believe that the City should really care most about the well-being of the people who live here, focusing on providing assistance to those who aren’t able to sustain themselves in this city. We need to figure out more efficient ways to help those who aren’t wealthy so that they can succeed as well. This is not just about assistance–it’s also about providing more opportunities for those who need them. This is important. If we want Burlington to become more equitable, we need to start focusing on supporting everyone. This task is very difficult, which is why coming together as a community is beneficial.
As I reflect on the process, I especially appreciate that the city was asking for the input of the youth, since this is one of the most valuable ways to broaden the number of voices who are involved. to happen. I think that it’s amazing how our leaders are allowing young people to have an early impact. We are the future and it’s important that the city is recognizing this. I am grateful that we were allowed to have a voice.
It was an honor to interact with the Burlington City and Lake Semester class as often as I did. Our collaboration with the students began at the beginning of the semester where the Equity Report team presented the 2018 Equity Report, shared our intention for the 2019 edition, and brainstormed how BCL could contribute to this project. Even before we dove into the report itself, I was particularly intrigued by the community-centered format of the course and the way in which students interacted with one another and the material. Each visit included shared leadership and meaningful dialogue among students, instructors, and the Equity Report team. I believe that this class culture established the foundation for our successful relationship with BCL.
From the beginning, the students of BCL proved to be vital partners in this project. They provided critical access to the community that we would not have been able to access alone, and they did so with a consistent lens of equity. I was struck by how thoughtfully critical they were of the report and the research method. Their feedback is what ultimately helped us refine and improve our process. Throughout the consultancy, students went above and beyond to analyze our assumptions about the process and the Burlington community, and they were eager to contribute their unique perspectives on the state of equity in the City. Their qualitative research amplified voices that we otherwise would not have reached. Moreover, their contribution illuminated areas where the report can strive to be even more equitable.
It’s not often that a class like Burlington City and Lake Semester comes along and it has been a pleasure to join their community throughout this semester. I look forward to the next time!
- Belan Antensaye