Systems Under Stress and Opportunities for Change

After our early days of “onboarding” (which, thanks to BCL5’s courageous lake expedition, was quite literal!), we pivoted to a deep dive into conceptual frameworks and real-world systems. Combined, these modules provided students with an opportunity to understand the complexities of the city they call home–as well as the chance to meet our first community partners, each of whom is actively working to make Burlington a more livable place. 

Students know all too well the personal stress of these times, but soon came to realize that this historical moment is also stressing the systems all around them. Whether it is the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, the tumultuous protests calling for reform of our institutions, or the local impact of school closures, systems that have seemed stable for years are feeling the tremors. But in this unique moment, there are also palpable opportunities.

Over the course of one week, BCL students worked with a UVM professor to understand systems theory; discussed the dynamics of protest in Battery Park with a City Councilor, a Police Commissioner, and a community organizer; met with the acting Police Chief to explore both the limits to and potential for change; investigated the impact of COVID-19 on a Church Street business with the manager of Ben & Jerry’s;  and met with a Vermont State Senator, a UVM social justice advocate, and a CEDO Community Engagement Specialist to explore how power and privilege play out across the city. Not a bad week, all in all. 

UVM Agroentomologist, Vic Izzo, helps introduce systems theory
Discussing the dynamics of protest, policing, and power with Police Commissioner, Melo Grant.
City Councilor, Ali Dieng, explains what the City can, and can’t do in this situation.
Usted and Safiya follow up with Melo after the formal discussion.
Community organizer, Emma Galvin (BHS ‘13) digs into the rights and responsibilities of social change.

When we were walking down towards the Waterfront, we passed by Battery Park. There were many tents and people participating in protests to get three police officers fired (two now). This protest is about racial justice, which is a big idea that I saw in action this week. Earlier that day, and the day before we had learned more about the protests from both activists and the Deputy Chief. This enriched my understanding of racial justice in Burlington because I wasn’t simply reading an article on the issue, I was hearing from people with different perspectives, from different pasts, in person. I was also seeing what they were talking about as it was happening.


When I consider BLM, a big idea that emerges is social justice. The protestors are demanding for justice to be met. This can be as broad as justice for George Floyd, and as specific as firing the three cops in question locally. So what is justice? According to it’s “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.” Protesters claim they are fighting for equitable justice–to be treated by the cops like everyone else. They are also moral justice–for the cops who are involved in cases like this, to not use excessive force and bias etc. The BPD believes justice has already been served. They believe the officers have already received punishments, equal to their actions in question. From BLM’s side, justice hasn’t been achieved until all of their demands are met. The different interpretation of the word “justice” is the biggest barrier between the sides. To make it even more complex, you have all the types of justice going on in this issue right now: social, moral, equity. It’s all a jumbled mess, when all both sides want collectively is public safety and the greater good. 


If we defund the police force and reconstruct it, what would it look like? This question was presented to BCL by activists during discussion. Many people have different ideas about what this new institution should look like. Some say they shouldn’t carry guns but I think it is necessary unless we take away all of America’s guns. I also think they should be more focused on restorative justice. This wouldn’t just prevent the crime and future ones, it would help communities heal and thrive. I also think police officers are doing way too many jobs they aren’t trained for. They have combat training for a job in social work. Maybe they could have specific officers for different calls. Armed forces for acts of violence. Social workers for drug use and suicide, etc.. Instead of having the job of police officer be so broad, maybe narrow it so they can be specially trained to handle each situation in order to avoid acts of impulse. I’m very curious about which direction our country will choose to take it.

BPD Deputy Chief Murad offers a BPD perspective to unfolding events, highlighting how far the department has come.
After meeting with reform advocates and the BPD, students got to work applying systems theory to the encampment at Battery Park. 

In the past week, one big idea I saw in action was social justice. When we spoke to different speakers on Monday and Tuesday, the idea of social justice came up a lot when discussing the current protests in Battery Park. One thing I noticed for all of the individuals that we spoke to is that they believed there is not one right answer to these complex problems. The speakers we talked to did not shy away from the fact that these problems are not black and white. I have felt very conflicted recently about what the right way to make change is, and what specifically that change should be. I am beginning to realize that right now, the best I can do is stay educated and just listen. When taking the big idea of social justice, it can be a lens for all other aspects of the Burlington community, such as education, the environment, and equality.  


This week, we learned about the protests in Battery Park, hearing from protesters and the Chief of Police. What struck me the most was how they both said they wanted the same thing (an unbiased police department that keeps the City of Burlington safe for all people) but they seemed to be completely unwavering about what needs to happen next. This unwillingness to compromise, and unwillingness to think about the other side of an issue as even a valid opinion, is something that is really hurting our democracy right now. My dad told me that he read an article about how our country has not been this polarized since after the Civil War. We have not come to blows yet, but our country is definitely functioning less effectively, because our politicians spend all of their time trying to block each other, and no time trying to make change for the better…


I never knew the difference between an open-ended question and a closed-ended question until these couple of weeks. One particular open-ended question comes from something I have heard from a few people: What is the right way to protest if everything we try gets shut down? I’ve been thinking about this for a few days and I have yet to hear a solid reason from everyone except how there really isn’t a “right way” to protest because there is still going to be that 20% that thinks we are going too far. There will never really be the perfect way to protest if we were to riot then we would be considered a danger to the public but if we were to protest peacefully our message won’t be heard as much. So is there really a right way to make everyone happy?

BCL students are introduced to a basic framework for understanding the local economy.
The framework, illustrated.
Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop manager, Jeremy, uses cups to help visualize what it takes to run a business. 
Columns of cups represent in-flows and out-of capital and resources.
Discussing power, privilege and politics with Kesha Ram. 
Balkisa Abdulkadir (BHS ‘17) talks with Safiya about social justice work, and whether BHS has made progress over the past few years.
Belan Antensaye, solicits students’ insight on whether Burlington is an equitable city. 
Students analyze demographic data in the city’s Equity Report.

In creating the Equity Report, one of the ultimate goals with the 2019 edition was to gather a broader range of perspectives. We’re so fortunate to get input on the direction of this report from BCL students and get feedback after it’s been published. I’m always considering and reconsidering viewpoints with each new group of BCL students. This cohort is no different. It’s a pleasure to reevaluate power, privilege, and perspective as they relate to this report and I thank the students for helping me grow in that way.

Belan Antensaye, City of Burlington CEDO Community Engagement Specialist
BSD Superintendent, Tom Flanagan talks with students about the unique challenges faced by the school system at this moment. 
Rehema interviews BSD Equity Instructional Leader, Autumn Bangoura, about the degree to which Burlington kids are learning about Vermont’s indigenous people and heritage. 

BCL is different. It’s not “by the book” at all. It’s all about experiences. I’m able to see people in person, and connect face to face–people I know, and new people too. 

Ha Nhi

BCL feels like it’s based on my own curiosity. I have the space to work individually. My memories of these experiences aren’t hazy — I remember everything. I’m also engaged more. I can be shy sometimes, but here I engage with people. I had a real conversation with Melo, and I felt comfortable. Here in BCL, I’m able to learn from real experiences. 


When we show up to BCL with vulnerability and remain open to hearing others, we can get so much more out of learning… Breaking down the barriers of stigma and judgement always helps everyone feel more willing to open up. Ways to break down these barriers include open and honest dialogue, and showing support and empathy to those around us. When we stop judging ourselves and fearing being wrong, it’s all the more easier to do the same for our peers. If everyone showed up to class, as Brene Brown says, “with their whole heart even though there’s no guarantee” we would be capable of exploring solutions, ideas, and curiosity without fear of being judged or being wrong, which opens so many more doors for exploration and learning.


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