Bennington residents Tina Cook and Shawn Pratt are part of the Bright Leadership Institute’s inaugural class of “Bright Leaders,” a cohort of “eleven emerging BIPOC leaders from across Vermont,” the organization announced on Monday.
BLU, which announced its launch earlier this year, “is a multi-stage training program for BIPOC Vermonters who wish to run for any level of public office or take on a community leadership role,” according to its website.
The inaugural Bright Leaders group met for the first time over the weekend, “beginning a monthly training program that builds their skills in communications, organizing, fundraising, and personal safety and resilience,” according to a news release. Students each receive a $1,000 stipend.
Cook, who has a professional background in internet marketing, pursued a three-year seat on the Bennington Select Board earlier this year, placing third in an eight-candidate field, less than three-dozen votes behind one of the two winners.
Cook said that the program already “has reinvigorated my desire to keep going” and to seek a seat on the town board again in a future election.
Cook chairs the Rutland Area NAACP’s committee that oversees homelessness in the Bennington and Rutland areas and serves on the organization’s education committee. She also volunteers for a local Planned Parenthood group.
Cook said at least part of the reason she ran for public office was to motivate others to run.
“Everything I’ve been doing is to learn the process” and to “help create a road map for the next person who wants to learn the process,” she said.
Although she describes herself as a “total introvert,” Cook said she decided that if she was going to participate in the leadership program, “I was going to lay it all out on the table.” Inspired in class by the idea of bringing one’s most authentic self forward, Cook, who in childhood wanted to become a blues singer, asked toward the end of the session if she could sing “Amazing Grace” for the group; others joined in.
Pratt, who has lived in Bennington since 1996, ran for a seat on the Mount Anthony Union School District board in 2019. He is a social justice advocate who runs a mentorship program for college students called Brooklyn to Vermont. He’s also a former assistant basketball coach for Southern Vermont College and at present is working to bring a semi-professional basketball team to Bennington.
Pratt was appointed by Gov. Phil Scott around the start of this year to serve on the Vermont Criminal Justice Council.
Pratt said the Bright Leaders program represented an opportunity to connect with other people of color outside of the Bennington area.
“I get to mingle with those people and get to see what they do in their communities,” he said.
Pratt said it is possible that he would run for office again but that he is more focused currently on delving further into advocacy work.
In addition to Cook and Pratt, the other members of the first class of “Bright Leaders” are Raynolds Awusi, of Castleton; Thifeen Deen, of Burlington; Chol Door, of Charlotte; Marlon Fisher, of Burlington; Sharonna Henderson, of Randolph; Saudia Lamont, of Morrisville; Omara Rivera-Vazquez, of Johnson; Selebika Saniyo, of Essex Junction; and Britaney Watson, of Springfield.
Members of the class “represent a range of expertise and lived experiences,” according to the news release. Members include people “who serve in the Guard, immigrated to the US from another country, and work in a congressional office.”
“Each applicant was selected for the program based on overcoming adversity, identifying specific areas for growth, and expressing interest in being changemakers in Vermont,” according to the release. “Some applicants who were not selected were referred to the Rights & Democracy Catalyst Leadership Program.”
“The partnership between BLI and Catalyst Leadership is intended to build more opportunities for folks of color to lead without having to worry about exclusive selection models,” Mia Schultz, who serves as the Catalyst Leadership Coordinator and BLI faculty, said in the release. “There is a seat for everyone who wants to serve.”
Steffen Gillom, executive director of BLI, said the program, which he developed with former Rutland Area NAACP president Tabitha Moore, arose after Gillom noticed that in Vermont “there was no infrastructure for people of color to really mobilize their voices as leaders” and to help them realize “who they were as leaders in a truly uniform organized way.”
“This program was created to allow people with such potential, and people already making big change, the opportunity to develop” leadership skills, said Gillom, who is the founding president of the Windham County Vermont NAACP branch.
The class is expected to meet five more times before graduation, Gillom said. The first class focused on the mind — “on the things that we tell ourselves about who we are and how society has influenced that,” as Gillom put it. Future prospective topics include communication, personal branding, platform building and money, though Gillom emphasized that the program could be adapted in real time to the needs of students.
Gillom said the organization sees the $1,000 stipends as investments in the students. Typically when programs like Bright Leaders arise, potential participants are told, “You should apply for this, we’ll help you find funding.” Gillom explained.
“We think it’s important for people to feel invested in,” Gillom said.
Gillom said he is excited that the organization’s development was “Black femme- and queer-led,” which highlights how “intersections of being black and queer can lead to an inclusive society where everyone is considered.”
“Strategy is something that Black queer people know better than everybody because every space we walk into, we have to strategize our safety,” Gillom said. “We have to be selective about how we communicate and who we communicate to in a way that moves us forward without harming us.”