‘Give me some contrast’: How an Essex native sought new perspectives, hosted open dialogues about race in BTV

A 21-year-old Essex native didn’t always feel able to call out his friends when they did something that rubbed him the wrong way. But a lot has changed for Danyeh Gutema, who used this summer to have open dialogues about race with the people of Burlington. 

The death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer in May, led to national unrest. It also prompted Gutema, who is Black, to set up a table in front of Burlington’s City Hall and encourage people to chat about race with him. 

He felt accepted growing up in Essex. Still, he had plenty of experiences throughout his life in which he didn’t feel comfortable speaking up when something bothered him, like when friends used racial slurs while singing along to music.   

“It’s one of those things, you build your confidence,” he said. “You figure out what things you really want to stand for.”

Danyeh Gutema poses for a photograph.

Instead of by vilifying others, Gutema believes creating allies and changing perspectives happens through open conversation and sharing experiences. He felt the best way to do this was offline. 

“You have this audience,” he said of online discourse. “So now you’re just trying to win the argument. And people will say things online that they would never say in person.” 

He has had new ideas flow his way, prompting him to think more deeply about his own values. For example, Gutema generally felt the responsibility for de-escalation in police interactions belonged entirely to officers. But one individual shared their own conversation with an officer, who said this process requires cooperation from both parties. 

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“That’s what I’m really looking for when I have these conversations,” he said, “Is those kind of opposing views and ideas. To kind of give me some contrast.”   

At the time of the interview in late July, Gutema noted many of the people who typically approached his table were older adults, so he extended a special call-out to see turnout from individuals at the high school and college level. 

“This movement and these ideas, it’s our future,” he said. “It’s our world that we’re coming into.”

Gutema will head back to Cornell University for school, but said a friend wanted to continue the tradition this fall. 

Contact Maleeha Syed at mzsyed@freepressmedia.com or 802-495-6595. Follow her on Twitter @MaleehaSyed89

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