1 in 8700: Cheryl Mitchell

Cheryl Mitchell

Courtesy Photo

Cheryl Mitchell


What do the Addison County Parent/Child Center, Addison County Farm Worker Coalition, Addison County Dental Care and Alliance for Civic Engagement at Middlebury College have in common? Here is the answer: Cheryl Mitchell is heavily involved in all of them.

Throughout her more than 40 years in the Middlebury area, Cheryl Mitchell has been active in spearheading a remarkable number of social welfare programs, including the four listed above, that continue to make their positive impact in this community. WomenSafe, an Addison County organization that fights domestic and sexual violence, awarded Mitchell the 2017 Kimberly Krans Women Who Change the World Award for her work in and dedication to the community.

Mitchell cited her parents’ influence as one of the main reasons for her lifelong involvement in social justice. As a child, she observed the example of her mother, who taught a preschool class for children with autism and was involved in diverse volunteer work.

“My mother would pick up people on the street,” Mitchell said. “She’d see an old woman struggling with a bag of groceries, offer to give her a ride, and they would become friends.”
Every summer, Mitchell would get her feet wet in a different social justice–oriented program. Because of her experiences in social work, Mitchell initially thought that she would be a sociology major when she went to college. After taking coursework in the sociology department at Swarthmore College, however, she thought, “Well, this is all sort of common sense.” She much preferred reading poetry and literature and graduated in 1971 with a double degree in English literature and religion. She continued her active involvement in social justice in the summers, when she worked for organizations like Ecology Action. After graduation, working in the child care program at the Mary Johnson Children’s Center opened her eyes to the deeper struggles of families in the Addison County area.

“I grew up in a pretty comfortable middle-class family in the suburbs,” she said. “I didn’t have the day-to-day understanding that people’s lives were a lot more challenging.”

This experience prompted her to found the Addison County Parent/Child Center in Middlebury, which serves 1,700 rural families annually and has a special focus on supporting pregnant and parenting teens. The parents at the center were often abused or traumatized when they were children, and they struggle to support their families.

“It changed my perspective to see that it was not that people were incapable of managing their own lives, but that there were big social systems that were making things very difficult for them,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell believes that helping people live better lives takes more than individual help. For long-term, effective progress, it is imperative to address the larger social structures that affect these people.

She became involved in policymaking through her 10-year service with the state of Vermont, where she worked as deputy secretary for the Agency of Human Services under Gov. Howard Dean.

The work is fascinating, Cheryl explained, “but it’s only fascinating for me if it’s still connected to what individuals need.” Mitchell believes that significant and lasting change comes from the people. “It’s that coming-together piece that makes our lives different,” she said. “We all need health insurance, so let’s work on that. We need better housing, so let’s work on that. Policies that start at the government level don’t do very much unless they are a response to what the community wants.”

Mitchell has seen improvements in affordable housing to allow for mixed-income communities, in access to college education through the local branch of the Community College of Vermont, and in graduation rates of high schools and vocational centers.

Mitchell also cited new growth in local agriculture.

“It’s been wonderful seeing new small farms develop. Small farmers have been able to make it, and people are becoming interested in organic food and wellness.”

However, Mitchell noted that more progress is necessary, as migrant workers employed on these farms are still not recognized and embraced as full-fledged members of the community.

“I know that for a lot of people of color in this community, it’s still a struggle just because such a large proportion of the community is white. There is an assumption that everybody is nice, and we’re not all nice. People need to be vigilant to make sure that nobody is feeling excluded.”

That vigilance comes from people’s understanding that they come from a place of privilege. “Sometimes I’m not sure that a lot of people understand that well enough, myself included,” Cheryl said. “You sometimes say, ‘Why don’t they just stop doing something, why can’t they just finish high school, why don’t they just get a job?’ when it’s not that easy. When you’ve had a good education and you’ve had a lot of family support, when things have been comparatively easy for you, sometimes you tend not to pay enough attention. I think that it’s something that we in this community need to work on.”

Part of creating inclusivity for migrant workers is allowing them to communicate effectively with the community around them. “This is going to be my new career, I think,” Cheryl said. “I’ve been teaching English as a second language, and I just love doing it. I’d like to do that more, for more people and maybe in other countries some day. [It’s important] for people to have a grasp of the language and to be able to communicate directly. Instead of me saying ‘This is what they need,’ they are able to say, ‘This is what I need,’ and that is so much more powerful and persuasive.”

Cheryl’s first love is her world of family and friends and people whom she loves, and she channels this love into her passion for supporting families with young kids.

“I continue to work with the issue that people who care for young children are abysmally underpaid and not given the recognition they deserve. I’ve been working to make sure that they can get the training and education they need, and that they can move into a world where they will be recognized and recompensed for the work they do.”

Outside of her social work, Cheryl loves taking care of her two grandchildren and working on Treleven, a working sheep farm that she and her husband, Don, own. Here they host school field trips, writers’ retreats and creative residencies. They have recently received a permit to host summer programs that will allow families to explore the natural environment of their farm and forest.

Mitchell’s current focus is on making the farm open and available, which echoes her spirit of sharing and her all-encompassing love for the community. “I have problems with the idea of private property,” she said. “If you have a piece of land and just put up a fence around it so nobody can get in, it just doesn’t make any sense.”