Tristan Toleno MBA ’11 on Racism in Vermont

Grad school alumnus and state rep relates experiences and seeks social change.

February 22, 2019

“It’s incredibly important that we not be allowed, as a majority white state, to scapegoat a handful of individuals for their extreme behavior,” said Tristan Toleno MBA ’11, a Vermont State Representative, in a recent panel discussion on Vermont Public Radio. The episode of Vermont Edition, titled “What Does Racism Look Like in Vermont,” followed on the resignation of State Representative Kiah Morris in response to a pattern of racist harassment directed at her and her family.

“We have to understand that the norm in Vermont is of many types of interactions that diminish and traumatize people,” said Tristan, who worked with Morris and considers her a friend. “And that’s part of what we have to hold ourselves up to, with humility and with intention.”

The panel also included Sha’an Mouliert, co-coordinator of I Am Vermont Too, Conner Cyrus, WCAX morning reporter, and Beverly Little Thunder, Lakota elder and board member of the Burlington-based Peace and Justice Center. Each of them reflected on their experiences with racism in Vermont and thoughts on moving forward. Tristan shared his moment of revelation when he inadvertently frightened a former employee, mentee, and good friend, who is African American, with a seemingly innocent gesture from a car.

“I could see myself as a source of fear,” said Tristan, who rushed to comfort his friend and learned of his years of random acts of verbal violence from passing cars. “I am grateful for that experience, even as it fuels me to seek social change and to be a better partner to the people of color who are struggling and suffering in Vermont for no reason other than our inability to acknowledge our own racist systems.”