by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
August 28, 2008
KEEPING VERMONT VERMONT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Vermont is beautiful in late summer. Just a drive up to Burlington gets me drunk with the rolling greens and golds dotted with reds, pinks and blues. It lifts the heart to be here. But for how long?
Last week, the nonprofit Council on the Future of Vermont (www.futureofvermont.org)came to Brattleboro for the last of 14 meetings it's held around the state. The point was to have a state-wide conversation with Vermonters on a few telling (and leading) questions: What does Vermont mean to you, and what common values do Vermonters share; what challenges and opportunities do you see for Vermont; What should our priorities be for the future; and how does this discussion concern the future of your community?
About 50 people from our area turned out to have this conversation. Most of them were middle-aged or older. Several state legislators were there, a few chamber and development types, many people who introduced themselves by saying they were from New Jersey or New York, and one who said his family has been here for over 100 years.
The values part of the discussion was easy - it always is. In fact, it usually gets downright romantic when people talk about Vermont: we value independence, the emphasis on community, the respect for others, our deep historical roots, the sheer physical beauty of the landscape, the small scale (in relative terms) of our state government and our easy access to our elected officials, our small schools that know and meet the needs of each student, the way newcomers are welcomed here, our pragmatism and common sense, our appreciation for the simple life, our devotion to downtowns, which goes along with our disdain for malls, our culture and our art, our spirit and our strong sense of place.
It's hard to live here, people pointed out. Our winters are difficult. They develop character.
But even here in Vermont, there are historical events that can challenge our sense of self-congratulation. For example, Vermont may have been the first state to outlaw slavery, but it also led the eugenics movement led by Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, in the early part of the 20th Century. This attempt "to conserve the quality of the human stock" led to the Vermont's notorious 1931 eugenic sterilization law, "A Law for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization.", where sterilization of the poor and mentally deficient was the liberal - yes, liberal - solution to poverty. Across the nation, many prominent people joined the movement, including Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. Ultimately, the idea was adopted with many fatal consequences by Nazi Germany.
And while we value the beauty of our landscape, haven't we noticed that the farms that keep the land open and out of development's way are rapidly disappearing?
So, what are our other "challenges?" (I liked it better when we called them "problems," didn't you?)
At first, the mood of self-congratulation continued. The greatest challenge of Vermont is to stay Vermont, people said.
Then came the politics. "The biggest challenge is to reclaim the natural family of mother, father and kids," said one man, while a beaming woman said she had an "unconventional" family and was proud to live in the first state to allow civil unions.
We need to wean ourselves off the military, said one man, and use the money to fight poverty and provide health care. We need to invest in public transportation, said another. We need to get off foreign oil and the "big grid system" and develop our own energy resources, several people said.
We need to stop allowing ourselves to be split into groups, said one man - blue state/red state; left/right; free market vs. tax-and-spend. Getting together is a priority.
A strong dose of reality came from a young man who works with other young people. "We have two types of young people here," he said. "One group is smart, driven, college-oriented. They find a way to get the hell out of here. The others don't have the drive or initiative. They're stuck here in a cycle of poverty and substance abuse."
One man discovered a nut of Vermont life when he was looking for a car mechanic. "Should I hire the garage that charges less, or the one that charges a little more but pays its workers a higher wage?" he said.
In our concerns, Brattleboro turned out to be quite in tune with other parts of the state. In a recent telephone survey, this same council found that 97.2 percent of Vermonters placed the greatest value on the state's working landscape and heritage. Spirit and independence placed second and third.
And the lack of good-paying jobs, of affordable places to live, the already high (and ever-increasing) cost of living, and the high cost of health care? They are of the utmost concern to most of us.
Our sainted U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy tackled the same subject in a speech to the Democratic Convention on Tuesday.
"I live on a dirt road in a town of eighteen hundred in Vermont," he said. "Some days we may cross paths with more deer than people... Rural communities face disproportionately high unemployment rates, violent crime is up, and no one is hurt by record high energy prices more than us... Our communities have suffered a 10 percent drop in household income - three times the national average. As jobs continue to diaper, 8 million rural Americans now live in poverty."
For Leahy, "Barack Obama will deliver the change we desperately need." For most Vermonters, in my humble opinion, getting rid of Gov. Jim Douglas would be a good place to start.
But let's not deceive ourselves. If we want to keep Vermont Vermont, we all have a lot of work to do.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.