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New study suggests pay equity, antiracism improves well-being for Black artists in Vermont

People recline on a lawn with eclipse glasses on. Behind them are a house and some folding chairs
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public File
From left, Elsie Berrouet, Maya Berrouet-Oge and Pievy Polyte watch the solar eclipse from the lawn of Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte on April 8 during "Bliss Eclipse," an event centering the well-being of Black artists. New research from the nonprofit explores what Black artists need to thrive in Vermont, including the benefits of physical space and mentorship facilitated by the Black-women-led organization.

Black artists care for their communities through their art, but the artists themselves need care, too.

That’s one of the main takeaways of a new study called “How Are We Doing?” released by the Charlotte nonprofit Clemmons Family Farm.

Art and artists can “serve as a powerful health intervention for Black Americans,” according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HHS notes that the creative arts can help improve mental health, heal trauma from racial injustice and provide culturally appropriate ways for Black people to access care.

But the agency also notes the lack of diversity in arts-based health intervention research.

Clemmons Family Farm’s new study aims to add to the scientific literature. Funded by a $250,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Health, the nonprofit checks in on the well-being of Black artists and asks how they can better thrive here. The idea is that artists need to be well themselves before they can then promote community wellness.

“The implication for organizations providing programs and services for Black artists is to think beyond their role as artists and as change agents in the community, and to start first with ‘caring for the carer,’ and include a focus on artists as people,” the study reads.

What’s working

To gather input from Black artists, Clemmons Family Farm used a combination of in-person and online surveys of 25 people and in-depth interviews with 10 people. The in-depth interviews also integrated artistic expression from participants through drawing, collage and poetry.

Much of the study examines the effectiveness of the resources offered by Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte. The historic farm was owned by African American couple Jackson and Lydia Clemmons for 61 years before it became a nonprofit led by their daughter, Lydia Clemmons, in 2023.

In addition to providing arts and culture programming, Clemmons Family Farm also produces hay, wheat, soy, corn, black beans and pinto beans and stewards 60 acres of forest.

And the study shows the literal, physical space at the farm — 138 acres — is essential for Black artists to feel emotionally safe, grounded and empowered among what is otherwise an overwhelmingly white population in Vermont.

“It is so important for folks with brown skin to be able to touch soil and not because they own it, but because they belong,” one artist says in the study.

“It is expansive, it is powerful and it’s screaming that people of color can do this,” another artist says.

“The farm itself just represents ownership and the possibilities and the potential that comes from just being able to own land,” a third artist says.

A photo of a tree as seen through other tree branches against an oddly dimmed blue sky and orangey-yellow dry grass.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public File
The Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte, with some of its 138 acres seen here under the eerie light of a partial solar eclipse, is among the largest historic African American-owned farms in Vermont.

In the United States, Black people and people of color generally are far less likely than white people to own land, due to land dispossession through racist violence, policy and people in power. In Vermont, for example, the latest agriculture census shows Black residents own just over a tenth of 1% of the state’s farmland. Meanwhile, Vermont’s population is a little more than 2% Black or African American.

Robin Anthony Kouyate, a board member, social and behavioral science expert and lead author of the study, says that Clemmons Family Farm being led by Black women also plays an important role in the well-being of Black artists in Vermont. That includes having access to mentorship provided by the nonprofit’s executive director, Lydia Clemmons.

“What was unique about it was the time, the care, the expertise and the lived experience that was brought to those interactions,” Kouyate says.

More from Vermont Public: Clemmons Family Farm puts Black Vermonters' well-being at the center during 'Bliss Eclipse'

Mentorship can look like supporting Black artists in establishing their business, applying for grants and securing paid opportunities — and the study found there is opportunity for more of that support.

“A key opportunity … is to continue to implement programs that can transform initial social and professional connections into sustainable social capital and ongoing equitably paid opportunities,” the study says.

It suggests organizations should go beyond offering one-off opportunities for Black artists and help them get professionally connected.

Kouyate says another thing organizations should keep in mind are the social needs of Black artists in Vermont. Participants in the study said finances, burnout and loss of loved ones are their biggest challenges.

“The housing, the transportation — reliable transportation to get to work — child care, food, right? They can be at risk for instability in any of these areas,” Kouyate says.

The study also found that most of the Black artists it surveyed reported experiencing regular racial discrimination, which is widely shown to impact Black people’s health. Vermont’s Legislature declared racism a public health emergency in 2021.

The study recommends addressing both racial discrimination and social needs to promote the well-being of Black artists in Vermont. It suggests arts organizations partner with racial equity advocacy organizations, and that the farm itself might create a referral system to address social and economic needs of artists.

A holistic approach

Measuring how Black artists are doing in all aspects of their lives is groundbreaking, according to Kay Johnson, a board member for Clemmons Family Farm and a national consultant on health policy.

“There are measures of well-being, there are measures of empowerment, there are measures of racial discrimination, and measures of social drivers of health,” Johnson says. “Some of those are measured in our national surveys. But almost no one looks at the interaction of those things.”

Johnson says Clemmons Family Farm’s intersectional approach to its research provides a clearer picture of Black artists are doing, what support they need, and ultimately, how they can thrive so they can positively impact their communities.

“Part of our mission is to not just help these Black artists thrive, although that's primary,” she says. “Our support for them is to have them be empowered and active changemakers, with that overarching goal of social cohesion across race and culture.”

An image of three PDF scans grouped together. All are titled in thick font "how are we doing? understanding what it takes for Black Artists to thrive in Vermont" and all have Clemmons Family Farm written across the bottom. The first scan has a light tan background, reads, "Part I: Findings and Recommendations from Artist interviews April 2024" and includes a painting that has brown, green, yellow and red circles overlapping. The second scan has a light blue background and reads: "Part II: Findings and Recommendations from a wellness check-in with artists May 2024" and includes a collage that has text reading "open up your" above a yellow heart shape. Other images in the collage depict nature. And the third scan has a background of a painted face with skin that's in shades of light green, yellow and grey-ish blue and black, reads: "Part III: A rapid scan of the literature on black artists' empowerment and measures of thriving in the arts and health sectors May 2024."
Artwork from left to right: "Making Waves" by Y. Brunot, "Open Up Your Heart" by A. Taylor and "Mama Africa" by Pamela Tshilemba.
Courtesy Clemmons Family Farm
Clemmons Family Farm conducted its "How Are We Doing?" study with funding from the Vermont Department of Health.

Measuring Black Vermont artists’ impact on their communities is the next step for the farm. Johnson says the nonprofit plans to release additional reports over the summer with feedback from attendees at the farm’s programming.

She adds the research can provide a useful framework for public health agencies — in Vermont and beyond — as they strive toward well-being across multicultural communities.

“I've worked in 49 states, and I've worked directly for 22 states on the issues of equity and social drivers of health, and what I know is that states are struggling with how to measure, and states are struggling how to take action,” Johnson says. “And this work leads the way.”

Health equity in Vermont

For its part, the Vermont Department of Health says it values its partnership with Clemmons Family Farm — including the “How Are We Doing” study that the department funded.

In a statement, the department’s Director of Health Equity Integration Song Nguyen wrote that the findings from the study “will continue to inform our efforts as we strive to center experiences of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and enhance our public health efforts.”

Nguyen noted that the Health Department’s Office of Health Equity Integration has been fully staffed since 2022, the year after Vermont declared racism as a public health emergency.

“The Office of Health Equity Integration envisions a transformed public health system that is just and equitable and recognizes that to get there, we must collectively reimagine and rebuild public health systems that have historically prevented individuals and communities in Vermont from living their healthiest lives,” Nguyen wrote. “The Office of Health Equity Integration and the Health Department will continue our commitment to listen to, learn from, and support our partners with respect and transparency.”

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Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.