Burlington Free Press: Brown brings civil rights leaders to Vermont

By Matt Sutkoski, Free Press Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2011

Patrick Brown

Patrick Brown, executive director of the Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center, talks about this Sunday's Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Burlington. Photo credit: EMILY McMANAMY, Burlington Free Press

As part of the Burlington area’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Rev. Al Sharpton will speak at a 3 p.m. Sunday event in the Unitarian Universalist Church. That’s a pretty big draw for Vermont, and those attending the event have Patrick Brown to thank for that.

Brown is executive director of the Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center, a shoestring operation that has nonetheless brought some big names to Burlington for Martin Luther King Jr. Day events and for an annual diversity conference each March.

Desmond Tutu has been here. So has Anita Hill — twice. Brown has brought Angela Davis and Dick Gregory, and now Sharpton.

Brown, 57, said he has long been interested in educating people about multiculturalism.

“In my college days, I started organizing diversity conferences,” he said. In the early 1990s, noticing Burlington lacked any significant Martin Luther King events, he started organizing them.

He sees the observance as an important annual moment for the community.

“It’s an educational way for people to come together,” Brown said.

The Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center, an organization whose mission is to help educate people on diversity issues, relies on donations and services from a variety of sources, including individuals, the United Way of Chittenden County and others to bring speakers and events to Burlington.

The United Way helps with publicity. The Church Street Marketplace helps Brown with details such as transportation or sponsorship assistance.

Marketplace Executive Director Ron Redmond says he is impressed with Brown’s work.

“He is incredibly persistent,” Redmond said. “He is the Energizer bunny. He gets his mind on something and he doesn’t let it go until he gets it. He’s got a big vision, and that’s important in bringing conversations to a state that is predominantly white. We don’t have the benefit of experiencing a lot of diversity.”

Brown said he also manages to win monetary donations from the public and organizations to pay for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day speakers.

“I ask folks each year to give a little bit and then I put it all together,” Brown said.
Brown declined to say how much money it takes to bring speakers like Sharpton to Burlington, but he said it costs several thousand dollars.

Brown said instead of going through potential speakers’ agents, he sends letters and e-mails directly to people who he is interested in bringing to Burlington.

“I negotiate well,” he said, so he’s often able to bring a speaker to Burlington for less than it would take to go through an agent.

Civil rights speakers are in high demand on and around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so there are a lot of logistics involved, Brown said.

For instance, Sharpton is to arrive Sunday in Burlington and must leave to go back to New York immediately after the speech. So Brown must ensure airplane schedules and rides to and from the airport work perfectly.

Brown said he regrets never being able to bring the late Rosa Parks to Burlington. Parks was the woman who in the 1950s refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, helping fuel the civil rights movement. She died in 2005.

Brown said he doesn’t have any idea who might come to next year’s observance, but said he will soon start exploring options, as he simultaneously works on organizing a late March diversity conference in Burlington.

Contact Matt Sutkoski at 660-1846 or msutkosk@burlingtonfreepress.com