Burlington storyteller Ferene Paris Meyer finds the beauty and the struggle in Vermont

Ferene Paris Meyer is a Burlington-based storyteller whose events merge tales of life as a Black American and Black Vermonter with the food that’s important to her as a Haitian-American. The native of Brockton, Massachusetts, worked as director of the First Year Experience Program at the University of Vermont before leaving a year ago to become a storyteller in her new business, All Heart Inspirations.

A mother of two daughters, Paris Meyer spoke Oct. 13 with the Burlington Free Press about her life and experiences in Vermont. These excerpts are from that conversation.

Burlington storyteller Ferene Paris Meyer

Arrival in Vermont

We relocated up here from Massachusetts. My partner (Josh Meyer) got a job offer at St. Michael’s (College) and that’s what brought us up this way… We tiptoed very carefully up to Vermont. I had no context for what this place was… All I knew was St. Mike’s College plays Stonehill College, which is where I went to school.

Vermont, because it didn’t have a lot of my Haitian culture, it’s the reason why I started cooking Haitian food on my own. There are somethings it’s like, “Well, if you can’t get access to it, how do you figure it out?” and that was one of those things. I can’t wait to go home four times a year to indulge in this food that I deeply love, and so I started following recipes. I can’t believe now I have these series and these storytelling dinner series where people are coming to enjoy these three-course meals inspired by my Haitian culture. I don’t know if I would be doing that in 2020 if I hadn’t moved to Vermont.

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Teaching a Flynn Center storytelling class

If you think about us even just as a Haitian culture, a Haitian community, a vibe that we totally have is just kind of sitting around a table or sitting in a living room, and the food is not meant to be a rushed experience, and so you’re eating over a period of time, and you’re just talking and chatting.

When I was in Haiti just last May, a year ago, I remember that being the vibe. People just always had stories to tell — “Hey, take a seat, put your feet up, what’s going on?” The school that I was at before UVM, we did a lot of work in that higher-educational setting around encouraging students to tell their stories. It was something that was always a part of the way that I knew that connection and relationships could really be tended to make meaningful experiences happen.

Teaching that class in October (2019) really made me realize that there was another way to exist in this community beyond the higher-education setting. I hadn’t been happy at UVM for over three years. The last four years of my eight-year tenure was really strenuous for a lot of different reasons. There’s a lot of things around race and anti-blackness and white-supremacy culture — whether they want to acknowledge it or not, it’s there, and as someone who lived that experience for eight years, some days it’s so in your face and it can be suffocating, and so when I taught this class I was like, “This is more joy that I felt in 90 minutes of teaching than I’ve felt in like the last couple years at UVM.” I started to wrap my head around what would it look like for me to get involved maybe more with the Flynn or more in the community in a storyteller kind of way.

More:Talking about race, art and empathy with Burlington spoken-word poet Rajnii Eddins

What’s good about Vermont

I always joke that I went apple picking for the first time when I was 30, when I moved to Vermont (laughs), and my daughter was like 2, and we were discovering honey crisp apples at the same time. I was like, “What is this?!” and she’s like “What is this?!” There are things that growing up in Massachusetts, growing up in the city of Brockton, you know, you couldn’t just be at a lake in 15 minutes.

I deeply enjoy access to the outdoors. I think it’s such a beautiful gift to be able to have. I think it’s why we in Vermont have been able to manage this pandemic so well, because of our ability to get outside, get on a mountain, get in a river. So I love that.

Burlington storyteller Ferene Paris Meyer

Is Vermont receptive to stories of other cultures?

I think people are comfortable until what we are sharing about our story might raise some guilt or shame, and then that’s where this tension is happening. That’s a part of it, right?

I feel like the more privilege you have or if you’ve been able to move through life with a bunch of dominant identities, that’s really hard to, like, pivot and shift. That’s where the work is.

It just kind of gets disheartening with some of the things that we’re seeing that happen on a day-on-day basis. I guess that’s where I’m trying to find the balance each day, of how am I honoring and celebrating where I am right now in life and what is in front of me, but also, there’s (expletive)-up (expletive) about where I live in this state, and we have so much work to do. I think that’s the tension in trying to find the balance of, like, how much am I going to choose to hold today or be an activist today or, you know, engage today, because I also have to protect my collective energy and my family’s energies so that we can at least thrive the way that we need to.

More:Mikahely, a Vermont musician from Madagascar, sees the beauty in the colors of our skin

What’s a specific disheartening moment?

I don’t know if about four years ago if you had heard the narrative of when St. Michael’s College played the University of Vermont and their team (St. Michael’s) took a knee at the basketball game and kind of the backlash that happened? At that time my partner was the head coach (at St. Michael’s) and I was still working there (at UVM).

I remember being in that gym and when the players took a knee and being in the stands and seeing the reaction that was happening from this local Vermont community, that was one of those things that made me, like, folks are not seeing what this is really about.

Related:Editorial: Time for Vermont to take a knee

That was really hard to not only be on my home campus, but also this was my state and this was my city, and hearing some of the racist remarks that were being chanted by some of the spectators, and then seeing all the backlash that happened after, it was so close to home with my partner coaching for that team. Folks emailing, you know, his boss and the president and people wanting him fired — “How could he allow these men to take a knee?” … And that’s so hard because I’m sitting here and I’m like, “All these players were doing was trying to raise awareness that their lives or their players’ lives as men of color is not always just, and there’s a discrepancy that’s totally happening.”

When you live in a Black body and you’re in that gym and seeing so many people hate on something that is about trying to support what it means to exist in a Black body, that was one of those moments, like, Vermont thinks they’re liberal but they’re not. Vermont wants to think that, “We’re so good about all these things,” but that night, it’s so clear — everything comes back to me from that evening, I got goosebumps thinking about it — of what it meant to be surrounded by so many white people, and what it meant to have folks just hate on what this team was trying to do.

You think about the movement happening four years (later) now, it’s the same thing! And now people are on board. But I’m like, “We were trying to tell you this four years ago!” Yay, people are finally seeing it, but you know, you want to ask, “Why couldn’t you believe my story when I told you it four years ago? It wasn’t the popular trend, but that was my story, and why wasn’t that enough?”

More:Black Vermonters share stories about life in the Green Mountain State

What needs to happen to make change?

First and foremost it really starts with some honest self-awareness with you as an individual about how have you contributed to some of this stuff that people are expressing concern about? What has changed about you, just even in the last six months, right? Since the whole George Floyd thing, what can you say are five things that you’ve shifted in the way that you engage in the community or at home?

For example, my neighbors, their kids are young, like 6, 5 and a baby, but they finally realized that they were like, “We have such privilege as a white family to actually get to pick when we get to introduce race to our kids.”

I feel like I can look at my neighbors and I could concretely name a few examples of things that have shifted in their household alone about what it means to be committed to this movement. And the movement looks differently for all of us. It’s like, you gotta keep doing it every day. It’s not a checklist, right? It’s like breathing.

My partner’s white, so we’re a multiracial family, and he will often say that the only reason he can show up the way he shows up as an advocate is because it is at the expense of my lived experiences and my kids. We have these conversations about, “Is it possible to get somebody to connect on an emotional level of what a marginalized identity is going through without you having to personally hear their experiences or to know a BIPOC person?”

I was sharing with somebody after being with some of the students I had at UVM and having a lot of them share their story with me about what it meant to be transgender, I say how I can never go through an airport without thinking about their stories. I don’t take for granted that I’m able to go through this x-ray and nobody is questioning that my parts don’t match my license. I’m thinking about it. I use my pronouns and identify them because there are some people who just get mis-gendered. Those are things that I can do with an identity that isn’t my identity but I’m constantly doing work, whether or not there’s a transgender person in the space with me. I think that’s what some of this is about.

My partner and I, we still fumble all the time, and we’re married, right? This isn’t going to be easy. It’s not. Josh and I will co-facilitate something and just name some of the tensions that can exist for us. And there’s love between us. Of course what it means for neighbors or people at work who don’t have a connection to each other, that’s a commitment. But it’s necessary.

If you go

Upcoming events presented by Ferene Paris Meyer include:

–          6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22, “Finding Our Heart” song-centered BIPOC event, Railyard Apothecary’s indoor studio, Burlington. $21.

–          6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, “Feed Your Soul: A Heartfelt Evening of Storytelling and Haitian Cuisine,” August First Bakery, Burlington. Sold out.

–          6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, “Finding Human Connection Through Stories,” Railyard Apothecary’s indoor studio, Burlington. $21.

For more information: www.allheartinspirations.com

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at bhallenbeck@freepressmedia.com. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.