Home Commentary Intention versus Impact: A Letter from the Editor

Intention versus Impact: A Letter from the Editor

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Our recent article “Post-Flood Montpelier Table Set with Good Intentions, Concerns About Racism Had a Seat Too” (August 9–22, page 8) provoked some of our readers.

The headline gets, awkwardly perhaps, at the gist of the story, a nuanced and complex situation amid the chaos following the massive flood on July 11. The story involved local leaders in Montpelier, city staff, and volunteers — all of whom went above and beyond for their community in the weeks following a terrible disaster — and also paid workers here from out of state — many of them BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) — who were, by several accounts, told, at least temporarily, by at least one volunteer and/or city staff that they weren’t welcome to have the free food offered to volunteers. It should be noted that some people denied that happened, and our story looked at the impact of what appeared to be an attempt to drive business to local restaurants, and how it felt like racism to several people who were there at the time.

To sum up the article: It may not have been anyone’s intention to take actions based on race, but despite apparent best efforts in a complex circumstance, mistakes were made, communication between the city and volunteers was confusing, and as a result we believe harm was caused to people of color who already feel marginalized in a mostly white town. We heard from a lot of you about it, so I’m offering you this look into how we made the decision to run the story, and more importantly, why.

A key part of the story is where our reporter explained why some people were offended by what happened: “even where no racism was intended, the impact of excluding paid workers would have been harmful along largely racial lines. The University of Vermont’s Anti-Racism Instructor Guide summarizes the principle like this: “Intention is not the focus. Impact is.” 

The story attempted to distinguish between intent — what people were trying to do, in this case to help in a disaster and aid local restaurants — and impact — what, however unintended, something may have looked like or felt to others.

Some have questioned why we would run a story with negative overtones amid the important community-building that’s been front and center in the aftermath of the flood. As the editor of this beloved local paper, I thought long and hard about it, and it came down to this: The community has come together in amazing, strong, and beautiful ways since the flood (and long before). And — alongside that — there were people of color who felt harmed by the way the food tent situation evolved. Both stories are important. Both deserve space on our pages.

The Bridge, too, had to consider the intention and impact of running this story. There was probably no way to run the story without someone feeling harmed; there was no way to not run the story without someone feeling harmed. After careful thought, it appeared to me that not running the story would further the unintended impact that harmed our BIPOC neighbors by perpetuating the silence so often prevalent in these kinds of situations. So we ran it.

Our community includes everyone who is here — all of our stories make up who we are. We will continue to cover the breadth of people and experiences in this community within our limited means, including the hard stories that make us look (sometimes painfully) at who we are and how our collective actions impact each other, and including the positive stories that make us feel good. 

Our intention was and is to continue to the best of our ability with a tiny staff (and a perilous shoestring budget) to cast light on our community in a way that unites rather than divides. We are all in this together.

—Cassandra Hemenway, Editor-in-Chief