At this year’s Future of Vermont Summit organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, I had the honor to be one of the opening speakers for the second day of the conference. I was asked to share my vision. Below are my remarks:
I am constantly in awe and thankful for all that Paul Costello and the VCRD team take on every day on behalf of Vermonters everywhere.
I find the Proposition work both fantastically energizing AND completely overwhelming.
When I signed off of the first panel yesterday, I was texting with a friend about how intense it was. She messaged back that needed a beer.
These conversations are hard, but so incredibly necessary. Thank you for being here with us, putting in the work, and participating.
I have been giving “my vision” a lot of thought, but I keep coming back to the same fundamental thread EVERY single time.
In my vision, I see a Vermont in which EVERY single individual feels like they have a VOICE that matters. I see a Vermont in which EVERY single individual feels like what they DO matters. And I see a Vermont in which EVERY single individual both feels supported AND actively supports others.
The skeptic in me is like, “Well that’s a completely unreasonable goal,” but the optimist in me REALLY wants to believe this is achievable.
Being very visible and having a community space on a downtown Main Street, I often have people coming in to ask completely random questions.
I have had people ask me: if it is okay if they attend their Town Meeting; how they can engage with their town government; how to start volunteering so they can teach their kids how to do so; and so on.
Every time, you can tell that these are hard questions that they have struggled with for awhile, but did not have a safe resource to ask. Each and every time, it both breaks my heart and gives me an intense sense of hope for humanity.
I want to see a Vermont that empowers people to get involved at all levels, without fear of being rejected or laughed at because they do not understand how the traditional system works.
Speaking of traditions, a story that keeps rising to the surface for me is of our local Rotary club.
It was chartered in 1925 and when I was asked to join in 2017, all of the members had been a part of it longer than I had been alive, many a few times over.
They had an amazing love for the club, but they were tired. They wanted me to recruit new members, but their traditions were highly exclusionary and turned off anyone that I brought to meetings. I wanted to respect their traditions, but we were going nowhere fast.
After two years of trying to keep things the same, I asked them if we could try do to things completely differently. We renamed the club to be more inclusive, changed the dues to be paid online, dropped the prayer, dropped the pledge, dropped the weekly requirement, met online, and so on. We COMPLETELY started over.
When we rose from the ashes, we began gaining new members of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and I am committed to expanding our racial diversity.
Instead of trying to carry on the same events that have happened for 50 years, members are asked to share ideas of things they want to try, no matter how silly they think they are. We listen, discuss, and just do whatever it is.
This first happened when our youngest member shly told us that she was not registered to vote and wanted to hold a voter registration event for high schoolers. I did not even think about it and said, “Awesome! Let’s do it!” It took her and everyone else by surprise, but we turned it into a team building event with a ridiculous clown car balloon arch building escapade and we have been riding that high for months.
Most recently, this led to a toiletry drive where I had to dance around in a toothpaste costume that the members wanted me to wear – while dancing to a cheer they came up with. And it was SO MUCH fricking fun and entirely painless. We gathered several car loads of stuff with little prep, stocked 10 different food shelves and teen centers, and most importantly, EVERYONE was energized and ready for the next project.
What made it stick out the most for me was when people from the community said they wanted to join Rotary because they saw videos on Facebook and it looked like so much fun.
I think in many ways, we need to be willing to completely reinvent ourselves and start anew. There is ABSOLUTELY something to be said for respecting tradition, but in the cases where it is hindering progress, turning people off – OR WORSE – hurting them, we need to be willing to ditch the “this is how it’s always been done” script and be willing to evolve.
When people show up with a completely new business innovation, we NEED to be cheerleaders.
When people who JUST moved here present a new idea for how things could be done, we NEED to listen, learn, and implement.
And when people tell us that they cannot participate because we have put barriers in their way, we NEED to remove them.
I believe that EACH OF US has the ability to do more to empower our fellow Vermonters. To bring them to the table, give them the mic, actively listen, and ACT on what they share with us.
It is time for us to rethink how we recruit people, how we retain and support people, and how we boost people up.
If NOTHING else, I would love if each of us left here thinking of 2-3 people we could activate, mentor, and listen to for the very first time. You get bonus points if those people are completely outside of your circle.
As we come out of the pandemic, let’s not return to normal or carry on traditions that are dragging us down.
Let’s be willing to put on the toothpaste costume.
As we look ahead, let’s reinvent some shit and have fun doing it.