By Cora Smith | Community News Service
Vermont’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed by legislators last year to document and examine state-sanctioned discrimination against historically oppressed groups, is in the process of hiring an executive director, legal counsel, an administrative assistant and research staff.
Those planned hires come after the announcement of the state body’s inaugural three commissioners in late March. The commission also plans to bring on interns from Vermont’s universities to support its work looking at instances where the state allowed or caused discrimination against Black and Indigenous people, people of French-Canadian descent, people with disabilities and others.
The commission has three years to gather testimony from Vermonters and research past and current harm done by the state. It will then present a report to the Legislature in June 2026.
Much of the work will come from listening to Vermonters’ stories — something the commissioners hope to make easy and comfortable for people.
“This is about telling your truth, and that is reopening wounds,” said Mia Schultz, one of the commissioners and president of the Rutland-area NAACP. “And when you reopen wounds and you become vulnerable, we need to provide space and place and safety and follow-up. And I feel like that’s an important part of this process.”
Taking great care with that process is especially important because, Schultz said, the commission will be listening to “people who are invisible.”
“And those are Vermonters that don’t get their stories heard and sit and suffer in silence,” said Schultz. “And I think it’s important for all Vermonters to understand that there are people that are being harmed.”
Melody Mackin, another commissioner and secretary of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, said collaboration will be key, and she hopes that the commission can facilitate discussions that give people a sense of peace and will be therapeutic.
All three commissioners bring backgrounds working with issues impacting different discriminated-against groups.
Patrick Standen, the third commissioner and professor of philosophy at St. Michael’s College, has worked in the disability community for more than 40 years.
“I come from a personal experience of having lived with a disability and actually experienced some discrimination and prejudice over the years,” said Standen.
Standen grew up in rural Vermont and heard stories from people with French-Canadian heritage — a group that was ostracized by people and by policies. He gave up his teaching to accept the full-time commissioner position.
“I felt that I had a duty and obligation to use my skills to provide this very important work so that we could hear these stories and begin the process of social healing,” said Standen.
Schultz, in her role with the Rutland-area NAACP, has experience pushing for policy changes that protect vulnerable communities — something the commission may look to do through recommendations to officials.
“I’m challenging laws on a regular basis — how they affect our people and have affected our people for generations,” said Schultz. “And so it seems like a natural fit for me.”
She also said that her experience as a mixed-race Black woman with neurodiverse children will shape her work as a commissioner. She hopes to address structural change in Vermont.
“I feel like these are the ways that I can really show up, not only to provide community and safe places for people to be able to tell their stories but to also offer place and space within our institutions and our systems to have to push for change and push for the society and democracy that we all are promised,” Schultz said.
Mackin’s work has also centered on addressing injustices. On the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, Mackin said she has worked to assist tribes with state recognition and protecting their heritage.
“Basically the key to all of this is listening and communication,” said Mackin. “So what does justice look like to everybody who’s been impacted?”
Truth and reconciliation commissions have been established across the country and the world in recent decades, including in South Africa, Canada, Maine and North Carolina.
“There’s lots of ways that truth and reconciliation has shown up in the United States,” said Schultz. “But when you look at it in terms of being funded and promoted by the state itself, that’s a rarity right now.”
Commissioners said they’re aware their mandate could court controversy. “There’s going to be people who just object to it from the beginning — people who might believe it’s an overreach of government, people who might want to let bygones be bygones, others who might not want to revisit that trauma in their family or their population,” said Standen.
He hopes the commission’s recommendations to the Legislature will be incorporated into the school curriculum and the state’s history.
“It is vital that our history — warts and all — be available for our future generations,” he said.
Schultz said the commission can be a starting point for building compassion between Vermonters.
“This is not a one and done,” said Schultz. “And so we’re going to need the participation of all of the people in Vermont — and that includes the media — to be able to spread the word that these things are happening and to pay attention and to maybe look at your neighbor a little bit differently in terms of their humanity and what they may or may not be experiencing.”
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.