The quiet powerhouse fighting racism in one of America’s whitest states

Why We Wrote This

How to tackle a problem as monumental as systemic racism? For Xusana Davis, Vermont’s first executive director of racial equity, it starts with something radically simple: listening. 

Courtesy of Xusana Davis
Xusana Davis, Vermont's first executive director of racial equity, works to root out systemic racism in one of America's whitest states.

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In the days following George Floyd’s killing, the nation found itself in deep reflection and discussion on racial justice. Conversation, commentary, and social media posts on the topic reached a crescendo in the weeks following the incident. 

But amid all the discussions on race, Xusana Davis, Vermont’s first executive director of racial equity, is focused on listening. “I always try to listen nonjudgmentally,” Ms. Davis says. “I’m really not interested in dwelling on a person’s current or past opinions. I’d rather help them get to a higher level of inquiry and action instead.” 

That is the spirit Ms. Davis brought to Vermont in the summer of 2019 when she embarked on this herculean task: to conduct a comprehensive review of state government to identify systemic racism and address inequities in this New England state, which is 94% white.

Ms. Davis has helped to coordinate the translation and dissemination of public health information, assisted essential workers seeking help, and addressed gaps in data collection. Lawmakers have also passed several policing-related bills this year, including one banning chokeholds. 

“The most progress being made,” however, says Ms. Davis, “is in one of the more difficult initial steps: having the conversation, and having it with sincerity.”

In the days following George Floyd’s killing, Xusana Davis’ office in Vermont was flooded with calls and emails, as the nation suddenly found itself in deep reflection on racial justice. Ms. Davis, Vermont’s first executive director of racial equity, says a number of her colleagues in state government want to be part of the solution.

“A lot of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have reached out did reach out, and wondered whether what they were doing was enough, whether it was causing harm, and what else they could be doing,” Ms. Davis says.

Amid the discussions on race, Ms. Davis is focused on listening. She communicates with a diverse range of people, from refugees resettled in Vermont to lifelong Vermonters just learning about the impact of racism. Some people may be hesitant to talk about race in today’s climate.

“To combat this, I always try to listen nonjudgmentally,” Ms. Davis says. “I’m really not interested in dwelling on a person’s current or past opinions. I’d rather help them get to a higher level of inquiry and action instead.”

Ms. Davis officially started work in the summer of 2019 in this Cabinet-level post, after leaving a job as a top official in the New York City health department. One of her main duties in Vermont: to conduct a comprehensive review of state government to identify systemic racism and address those inequities.

Vermont, a state that is 94% white, is facing its own struggles with racism, from the intense racial harassment of lawmaker Kiah Morris, which led her to resign in 2018, to vandalism of Black Lives Matter murals painted on streets this year. More recently, Tabitha Moore, president of the Rutland Area NAACP, is moving out of her home due to continued racial harassment directed at her and her teenage daughter.

Ms. Moore is a member of a statewide Racial Equity Task Force formed this year, which Ms. Davis chairs. Ms. Moore and numerous other advocates urged lawmakers to pursue the legislation that created the state’s executive director of racial equity position.

“It’s the first real crack in the glass ceiling of government administration in Vermont related to systemic racism,” Ms. Moore says. “It’s critical; it’s beyond necessary.”

So far, Ms. Davis says she’s encountered a lot of openness to her work. After Mr. Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, she says many individuals, particularly white people, “got the message” that staying neutral was not enough, and that it is actually part of the problem.

“That neutrality really is tacit acceptance of disparate systems,” she says.

The need for racial equity has become more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Vermonters of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic – which tracks with national trends. Ms. Davis has helped to coordinate the translation and dissemination of public health information, assisted essential workers seeking help, and addressed gaps in data collection, according to Rep. Kevin Christie, who chairs the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

“She was instrumental in keeping an eye on how well we were doing, and being that point of access for folks who didn’t know where else to go,” says Mr. Christie, who was a lead sponsor for the 2018 legislation that created the position of executive director of racial equity.

The early years

Ms. Davis was born in White Plains, New York, the first generation in her family to be born in the United States. Both of her parents are from the Dominican Republic and experienced discrimination in the U.S. due to their accents, so they were particular about how Ms. Davis and her brother learned to speak English.

“As a young child, I grew up in a predominantly African American area, and then as an adolescent moved to a predominantly white area, so I always felt different from those around me,” Ms. Davis says.

Over time, she would embrace that difference and work toward building racial equity and diversity.

Ms. Davis earned her law degree from New York Law School, with a concentration in international human rights law. There, she directed a civil liberties education program for low-income and minority youth. She didn’t trust the system, she says, “so I figured I’d go work in the system and pursue change from within.”

She eventually landed a job as the director of health and housing strategic initiatives for the New York City health department.

“It was really liaising with the program leads around the city,” Ms. Davis says.

Leading with respect

In Vermont, Ms. Davis is continuing the work of building relationships with stakeholders to address systemic racism in government. Those who work with her praise her approach. She can take strong stances on the issues while also knowing how to relate well to people and listen, Ms. Moore observes.

“One of the things I noticed first was her sense of respect for everyone in the room,” Ms. Moore says. “She commands a presence, but she’s quiet and thoughtful.”

“When she talks to people she doesn’t mince words, and she doesn’t gloss over things,” adds state Sen. Jeanette White, who chairs the Vermont Senate Government Operations Committee, which played a key role in crafting the legislation that created Ms. Davis’ position.

As Ms. Davis continues her work, the state must provide funding and resources for it, advocates emphasize.

So far, the state allocated $50,000 in its first-quarter budget for hiring data analysts for racial equity work, according to Ms. White, who says $100,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds was also directed to the office.

Data continues to be a key focus. Ms. Davis worked with the state Health Department, which has had a deep focus on equity for years, as they recovered some race-based data regarding COVID-19’s impact. The state presented its findings in September, showing that Vermont’s population of Black and Indigenous people and other minorities, which is 6% of the state’s total population, accounted for nearly a quarter of the state’s COVID-19 cases. This shows the importance of having new eyes on this data, Ms. Moore says.

“If you look at [the data] through the same privileged lens, you’re never going to understand why the numbers are the way they are and what the true impact is,” she says.

Going forward, there’s a lot of momentum on equity issues, Mr. Christie says. Lawmakers passed several policing-related bills this year, including one banning chokeholds. Another bill directs a legislative committee to discuss improving the collection of data on how key statewide issues affect Black and Indigenous people and other minorities, according to Mr. Christie.

“What gives me hope is the number of bills that were passed that strongly address a lot of the issues that have emerged this summer,” Mr. Christie says.

Though Ms. Davis says several bills fell short of her expectations, she noticed lawmakers and state leaders discussing and taking action on racial equity.

“The most progress being made is in one of the more difficult initial steps: having the conversation, and having it with sincerity,” she says.

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