"Emissary of peace"Jon Olender / Rutland Herald
Naima Wade stands in the hall by the entrance to her office by a Maya Angelou poster at Brattleboro Union High School.
Naima K. Wade has always been a dreamer. Growing up in the Booker T. Washington projects of Jersey City, N.J., she and her eight siblings woke daily to the sight of the Statue of Liberty.
“Every morning, my mother used to ask us, ‘What did you dream?’”
Lady Liberty didn’t inspire the question. Lady Luck did.
“Mafia loan sharks ran illegal numbers on the horses at the tracks,” Wade recalls. “My mother thought our dreams could help get a winning number. She or my dad would hit one, and we’d buy food and new clothes.”
It’s just one way her African-American family moved up in the world. Her grandparents farmed as sharecroppers in Georgia. Her parents worked the factories of New Jersey. And Wade, winning a scholarship at the height of the civil rights movement, did what no ancestor had done: She graduated from high school.
In Vermont, no less. Rock Point, then an all-girls Episcopal school on Lake Champlain in Burlington, was different than the inner-city classrooms she had attended 300 miles away. It led her to college, travel, a husband, two children and, in 1980, a return to the Green Mountains. Soon after settling in Brattleboro, she had a dream.
“I saw people fighting, running, crying. Then there was a man at a door. He said, ‘Come in.’ I went from chaos to calm. Everybody was working — all kinds of people. There was one other woman of color there, an older woman, and she said, ‘It’s about time you got here.’”
That’s when Wade woke up. Feeling singled out yet overlooked in what statisticians call the “whitest state in the nation,” she founded the African, Latino, Asian, Native and American Community Organization, now known simply as ALANA. When her youngest daughter found the Ku Klux Klan abbreviation “KKK” scratched on her locker at Brattleboro Union High School, she helped create the AWARE multicultural peer education program.
Some 15 years later, Wade has left ALANA and seen her children graduate from business and law school. But Vermont is still the whitest state — 96.9 percent at last count — and its minorities continue to feel misunderstood. And so Wade is traveling New England in a new role: “Something said to me, ‘Naima, you are an emissary of peace.’”
At a time when politicians and taxpayers want to cut school spending, Wade seeks private grants so she can work in classrooms to promote diversity and fight discrimination — not only racism, but also sexism, classism “and all the menu of ‘isms.’”
You can’t miss her in the hallway — she’s the one wearing natural tresses (“they are not artificial braids”) and a rainbow of skirts and scarves who looks too young to be a grandmother with almost six decades of experience. She’s teaching fellow Vermonters how to live with difference — and how to make one, too.
‘Answer to a prayer’
Wade traces her diplomatic demeanor to growing up the fifth of nine children.
“A middle child can be the peacemaker — you’re more sensitive to both sides. But a middle child also can be the most independent one.”
Living on the Atlantic shore, Wade was surrounded in the projects by immigrant families — “Polish, Jewish, Italian, Greek, Irish, you name it” — whose parents and grandparents had arrived from nearby Ellis Island. While they worked to fit in, she dreamed of getting out.
“I used to sit on the fire escape and count the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike and say, ‘Wonder where they’re going?’”
When Wade was a teenager, wealthy white Episcopalians in her community responded to President Kennedy’s call for equal access to education by helping disadvantaged blacks. Wade’s parents were Baptist. But they accepted an invitation to send their children to Episcopal Sunday school and summer camp and, in 1964, let Wade try high school in Vermont.
“I had been longing to step out of the middle, so it was the answer to a prayer. I thought I knew something coming from Jersey City, N.J., but Vermont girls taught me everything I know.”
How to step up, for example.
“I had time to come into my gifts as an intelligent young woman.”
And how to step out.
“How to climb and hike the Green Mountains, how to shave my legs and arms, what a hickey was … They brought us all up here to make us into fine, groomed Christian girls, but the Vermont girls were the wildest.”
Wade laughs warmly when saying that. Truth is, she was good enough to go on to Lyndon State College in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Arriving on the coed campus in 1967, she noticed all the boys. Then she saw she was one of only five blacks.
Wade’s official first name upon enrolling was the one on her birth certificate: Karen.
“But I didn’t feel the name,” she recalls.
Then she heard a John Coltrane song titled “Naima” (and pronounced Ny-E-ma).
“It’s Arabic and Hebrew and means a pleasant one, a pleasant gesture, a gift.”
Almost two decades after her birth, Naima K. Wade was born.
‘Welcome to freedom’
At Lyndon, Wade worked summers as a counselor for the Vermont-New York Youth Project, an initiative of Gov. Philip Hoff and New York Mayor John Lindsay to bring black and white children together.
Some 30 miles south at Goddard College in Plainfield, an older group of black coeds — “intellectual revolutionaries and anarchists,” Wade says — was creating an equally pioneering Third World Studies Program. Seeking like-skinned peers, they recruited Wade and most of her black classmates in 1968.
Students arrived for orientation to find a town fire truck spewing a mountain of shaving cream.
Strip down and jump in, someone said.
“I guess it symbolized ‘Welcome to freedom’ or ‘We’re all in this together,’” Wade says.
She didn’t disrobe. Instead, she traded her high school uniform — blazer, blouse, skirt, socks, loafers and a beanie — for torn Wrangler jeans and a pillowcase cut and embroidered into a tank top. She then shaved her head, leaving only a long Mohawk braid.
“I was a bona fide black hippie. We had socialists, communists, draft resisters, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims — students and doctrines from all over the world, learning to live on the land with less, to be environmentally competent. We created our own program, we hired our own professors. It was an experiential model, so we experimented.”
Wade found help from a Puerto Rican classmate who was “the Che Guevara of our group.”
“I spent most of my time looking into his eyes.”
She smiles like a schoolgirl when she says that.
He would become her husband. Wade interned as a language arts teacher in Boston before graduating in 1971. She and her new family — daughter Ayana was born in 1972 — settled in the Massachusetts capital. But by 1974, the city split apart as public schools started busing students to end racial segregation.
Seeking a calmer place, Wade and family moved to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There she taught school and gave birth to a second daughter, Taina, in 1977.
Wade also survived hurricane after hurricane. But by the end of the 1970s, she had weathered one too many. Was it David? Frederick? She only remembers one thing.
“I said, ‘This is it — I’m out of here.’”
The family moved to New York City. Soon after, Wade talked of returning to Vermont.
“I wanted a garden, to live in the woods.”
Her husband didn’t. Wade remembers the date: Dec. 16, 1980. Her marriage over, she rented a U-Haul truck and, without a house, job or promise of child support, drove her young daughters to the mountains that had first transformed her.
‘Where is my home?’
Crossing the state line, Wade stopped in Brattleboro. She had a few friends there but little else.
“I was still the person sitting on the fire-escape window wondering ‘Where is my home?’ But I had two children now, and I was a single mom.”
She moved into a downtown apartment next to Southeast Asian neighbors with equally dark skin. Not wanting to accept welfare, she took substitute teaching jobs ranging from art to gym.
“I did whatever I had to do. I wanted to raise my two daughters in peace.”
Others in her position might have declared war.
“I did get angry,” she recalls. But instead of striking out, she channeled her energy into her career and children. In 1990, she earned a master’s degree in teaching language at Brattleboro’s School for International Training. Two years later, reacting to the videotaped beating of Rodney King that sparked riots in Los Angeles, she organized a picket of about 100 people in front of the local post office.
“We carried signs like ‘The Civil War isn’t over yet’ and ‘We will learn or burn.’”
Her daughters were teenagers at the time. Her oldest, Ayana, didn’t want to go to public school and graduated from the private Northfield Mount Hermon School just south in Massachusetts. Her youngest, Taina, entered Brattleboro Union High School but felt virtually alone in a building of 1,000 predominantly white ninth- through 12th-graders.
“I realized I needed to do something to help students of color have some visibility.”
Wade helped her daughter create the school’s AWARE multicultural peer education program. They began by bringing together all 17 students of color. (That number has climbed to 76 today.)
“Students who were African, Caribbean, Asian, Latino, Native American, biracial, adopted by white families … There were all of these students who had never connected but were feeling the same sense of invisibility — or visibility — because of skin color.”
‘I used to be afraid’
In 1993, mother and daughter established the nonprofit African, Latino, Asian, Native and American Community Organization to work on racial issues outside the school. Wade, for example, heard that neighbors were having trouble getting treatment for AIDS. She was healthy. But sharing the same skin color, she related.
“I used to be afraid to go into the hospital — I would rather get in a car and go to Jersey to my family’s doctor. It was just a sense of not feeling safe or accepted.”
And so Wade learned how to write grants and, teaming with the Vermont Health Department, created an HIV/AIDS prevention program for local women of African and Latino descent. She soon added after-school youth programs and annual cultural festivals.
“At the heart of it,” she says, “was building a community for people who feel they don’t have a community.”
In 1999, President Clinton’s Initiative on Race cited ALANA as one of the country’s “Promising Practices for Racial Reconciliation.” In 2001, the U.S. Small Business Administration gave Wade its Minority Small Business Advocate of the Year award for her work in Vermont.
In 2002, Wade left ALANA. She saw it as a time of transition. Her oldest daughter had earned a master’s degree in business administration and opened a children’s clothing store in Miami. Her youngest daughter had graduated from law school and become an associate in a New York firm.
But Brattleboro Union High School continued to wrestle with questions about race. In 1998, someone dangled a black doll over the fall homecoming bonfire. In 1999, students rallying behind the school’s Southern colonel mascot sparked debate by waving Confederate flags. In 2004, leaders retired the mascot in a decision that divided the community.
Wade realized she still had work to do. She proposed a student diversity program. But school officials initially didn’t see the point.
“I would get answers from previous administrators saying ‘There’s not that many here — this is the whitest state in the nation.’”
Wade, however, wasn’t thinking about a specific color but an entire spectrum of difference.
‘It’s about us’
“We are universal citizens. We all live on planet Earth. There may be a class divide, a gender divide, an ability divide. That’s all diversity.”
Two unrelated events helped start the program. First, Brattleboro Union High School began a $56 million renovation and expansion project, which opened up a closet-sized office in the oldest section of the building. Soon after, a school fight involving a student of mixed race drew questions about whether it was sparked by racial tension.
Wade reiterated her offer to seek her own grants, provide her own materials and volunteer her time. A year ago, administrators gave her the empty office as well as a leftover desk, chair, computer and printer. Last month they put up a sign: “Diversity Office.”
“I am not here to be the race police,” she says today. “I am not here to accuse you or your ancestors or anybody else. It’s about how can we co-exist, or we will co-destruct.”
Wade has seen and felt prejudice and discrimination. But she also believes people can blame problems on race, sex or class when the situation is more complicated and misunderstood. To bring clarity, she encourages people to shout less and listen more.
“We often don’t know about difference only because we haven’t had a chance to dialogue and sort through what we thought or were told. Sometimes it’s about you holding on to stuff that had nothing to do with others, about feeling afraid because of history and coming to grips with past perceptions of difference.
“Youth of color need to be culturally competent, too. I’ll ask them, ‘What do you know about Vermont culture?’ Let’s share all our cultures, let’s share all our lessons. Reaching out to the wider community — not only students of color, but also Jewish students, gay students … It’s not just about you, it’s about us.”
School leaders agree.
“We want every student to feel that this is their school,” says Principal Jim Day. “When I met Naima, I felt she was a very positive-minded individual. She brings parties together and doesn’t try to make an issue when there isn’t one. While she’s here, I thought we ought to give her a place to hang her hat.”
‘This is my reason’
For her “paying gig,” Wade works as a private consultant with such groups as the Vermont Department of Human Resources. She travels New England as a trainer for the Anti-Defamation League’s “A World of Difference” program. And she portrays Jessie Daisy Turner, one of 16 children of ex-slaves who migrated to Grafton after the Civil War, for the Vermont Humanities Council’s visiting speakers program.
Turner, the subject of a Vermont Folklife Center documentary aired on public radio, was a civil rights champion until her death in 1988 at age 104. She hoped telling her story would help others.
“I’ve learned my lessons through experience. There’s a lot of fear of difference. When you are afraid, you either become the victimizer or the victim. That’s not what democracy is meant to be.”
Wade can tell you about Lucy Terry Prince, an 18th-century Vermonter and the first African-American female poet, and Alexander Twilight, a 19th-century Vermonter and the first African-American college graduate and state legislator.
But for her, it all goes back to the Statue of Liberty and its call for a place where everyone can live and breathe free. That’s why she gathers all students, be they black, gay, with special needs or part of a group raising money and awareness for Africans in war-torn Darfur.
“You know when people used to sit in to protest? I’ve been a solo sit-in in this town for 35 years to bring understanding and to explore what diversity means. That includes cultural, racial, gender, disability, generational … If there’s only a half of something here, it’s still diversity.”
In the 1700s, Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery. In the 1800s, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. But today, Wade knows people of color can feel lonely in the Green Mountains.
“I’ve withstood a lot of resistance, but I don’t give resistance back. My motto is surrender. The fire hydrants are going to open up and I’m going to blow you away with love. There have been times when I’ve said, ‘Why am I staying here?’ I’ve asked the divine creator, ‘Why do you keep Naima K. Wade in Vermont?’”
She looks at the colorful “Diversity Office” sign on the otherwise white wall.
“This is my reason. To make sure that as students come through this and other schools and go out into communities and the world, they learn how to become global citizens who value themselves and each other. They are the 21st century emissaries of peace.”
Contact Kevin O’Connor at email@example.com.MORE IN NewsPORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Sen. Full Story
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