Burr and Burton Class Discusses Race and Conflict with Kesha Ram

Last week, Rabbi Michael Cohen’s Conflict Resolution class participated in a Zoom discussion about conflict and racial discrimination with Vermont Senator-elect Kesha Ram. An animated face on the large screen in the Hunter Seminar Room, Ram introduced herself and answered a host of student questions with disarming honesty.  Students, both remote and in person, nodded their heads, jotted down notes, and leaned in to ask questions of this young political leader. 

Quick to make a personal connection with students, Ram said that she thought of Burr and Burton as “an institution that focuses on individually supporting young people to meet life goals.”  In fact, her recent campaign staff included Burr and Burton alum Tyler Jager ‘18, who wrote policy briefs on a host of issues that helped Ram in her election. 

Cohen, who gently facilitated the conversation between students and Ram, pointed out that the meeting was literally taking place under the Burr and Burton mission to educate students intellectually and morally for a life of responsibility, integrity, and service, which is printed on the wall over the screen. “Yes!” Ram said smiling, “That’s it, exactly.”

Ram sketched her background: She grew up in Los Angeles and attended a high school with more than 5,000 students. She described Santa Monica High School as both a place with gang violence and one where she learned a global education. Ram’s father, an Indian immigrant, and her mother, a Jewish American, ran an Irish pub, and Ram grew up helping out with the family business and advocating in her community for environmental issues and against the Iraq war.  Coming to Vermont for college at UVM, Ram studied Natural Resource Planning and Political Science and graduated with honors in 2008.  

That same year, she was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives, becoming both the first person of color to ever represent Burlington and the youngest legislator in the country.  Ram served in the Vermont House for four terms, and after an unsuccessful bid for Lieutenant Governor in 2015, she went on to attend the Harvard Kennedy School to earn a Masters in Public Administration in 2018.  Earlier this November, Ram’s bid to represent Chittenden County in the Vermont Senate was successful, and she became the first person of color elected to the Vermont Senate.

Students peppered Ram with well-thought-out questions on conflict, policy making, and racial discrimination.  One student asked a particularly evocative question: Have you ever personally experienced racial discrimination, and how did you respond or react?  

Ram shared a story that she also shared with colleagues on the floor of the Vermont House of Representatives: In her early teens, Ram and two female friends were arrested within eyesight of her friend’s home by police officers who asked them repeatedly if they were Mexican.  None of the young women were, and they answered as much, but the officers were not satisfied; they brought the teens to the police station, handcuffed them to chairs, and waited hours to call their parents.  The young women were charged with violating curfew, an arbitrarily enforced local law that they were not aware of.  Ram said that when she went to court she happened to have a judge that agreed the charges were flimsy and threw the case out--but she knew in that moment and afterwards that things could have gone poorly for her that day, and it could have changed the course of her life.

Ram pointed out to students one important tenet of discrimination: Those who are discriminated against “feel the conflict, but those who are priviledged don’t know the confict is there.”

Cohen didn’t miss an opportunity to connect the discussion to the Conflict Resolution curriculum, “In a string instrument, it’s the tension in the string that makes music.” Students nodded, and one said, “The conflict shouldn’t necessarily be avoided; it can be an opportunity for growth.” 

The Conflict Resolution course, which applies multiple theories of conflict resolution as lenses through which to view contemporary issues around the nature of peace, racism, the environment, the media, and the role of religion, is offered each year to Burr and Burton juniors and seniors.

Synthesizing several students questions, Ram circled around to the concept of cultural humility as part of the framework for Vermonters to address race and discrimination: “Can we remain curious both in reflecting on our own experiences and the lived experience of others?”  Ram thinks that we can, and that we must. ⭑

Conflict Resolution is a Bennington College course that is also taught here at Burr and Burton by Rabbi Michael Cohen, a Burr and Burton Trustee, who has taught and written extensively about the topic.