Vision for Vermont
Last September, 100 people from all over Vermont gathered at the Bread Loaf campus in Ripton to discuss their visions for their state’s future. Activist Fran Putnam led the charge, with Middlebury College Economics Professor Jon Isham acting as a moderator for the event. Today, these Vermonters have formed Vision for Vermont, a grassroots group working “to try to help bridge the divisions that have come to the surface in our country and in Vermont in the last several years,” according to their website.
Although the first meeting was held in 2018, Putnam dates the organization’s origin back to the 2016 election. After Trump was elected, Putnam and several others from the Middlebury area participated in the Women’s Marches in Montpelier and Washington, D.C.
They decided they wanted to continue this work to “move forward with turning this country [into] what we want to see rather than how divisive it [was] and still is.” So, they formed “Huddlebury,” a group that has met every two to three weeks since January of 2017. The group has been “trying to find ways to move forward, both locally and regionally,” Putnam said.
Huddlebury members began by reading climate activist Naomi Klein’s book “No Is Not Enough.” In it, Klein encourages Americans to have a particular vision rather than simply saying ‘no’ to everything. “That book was very inspirational to us,” Putnam explained.
Next, the group read George Lakey’s “Viking Economics” and attended several of his lectures in March of 2018. In April, Middlebury College Food Studies Professor Molly Anderson invited Lakey to campus to speak. Lakey described Nordic countries’ visions and how they were able to transform their governments and societies.
Putnam and her cohort asked themselves, “How can we do this in Vermont?” and decided on a vision summit, inviting people from all over the state to come together last September at Bread Loaf.
Isham became involved through, as he described, a serendipitous moment: he ran into Putnam and Anderson early last summer at the Natural Foods Co-Op. When they mentioned they were looking for a facilitator for a summit in September, Isham volunteered himself.
Isham has kept up with the groups since September and has “loved following their progress.” Through the fall, he worked with Putnam on developing a project for his Environmental Studies senior seminar class.
Over the course of the spring semester, Isham’s class has been working on a podcast for the Vision for Vermont website. Students have interviewed Vision for Vermont members and other Vermonters, including teachers, farmers, indigenous people and people of color.
Isham emphasized the importance of students looking at people a generation before them who were trying to affect change. “It’s helpful to see what worked for them, what didn’t, what their frustrations were, what they wish they had done differently,” he said.
One goal of the students’ project has been bringing more diversity to Vision for Vermont. The senior seminar is “trying to reach different demographics … to learn from these folks,” Isham stated.
Putnam expressed gratitude for the students’ work. “We’re trying to reach out to people whose voices are often not heard … we want to talk to people feeling disgruntled or angry, or that no one is listening to them, or that their voice doesn’t count,” Putnam said.
In addition to his senior seminar class, various other students have worked with Putnam on the project, including those involved in the Sunday Night Environmental Group (SNEG); Bayu Zulkifli ’21 designed the website while Leif Taranta ’20.5 and Cat La Roche ’21 have also collaborated with the group.
Over the course of the summit and following meetings, the group drafted a vision statement, published on their website. The statement addresses issues ranging from healthcare and food security to affordable housing and a strong and fair economy. It imagines “a future where Vermonters care for each other, their communities, and the earth; where the issues that matter to all of us are resolved in a way that protects our environment and combats further climate change; and where access to health care, and economic, racial and gender equity are assured for everyone.”
Putnam discussed the importance of the positivity and optimism of the group and vision statement. “The news is so bad every day … if I can get a group of people together moving forward and looking ahead to something more positive, it makes me and everyone around me feel better,” she said.
“Social change is [a] hard thing to steer, to understand and to manage,” Isham said. He believes starting with conversations is essential. “Think of churches in [the] civil rights movement, or college campuses in fights for women’s liberation and gay rights.”
La Roche believes people’s ideal worlds are not so different between parties, and that the vision statement is getting at these universal core values. People want the same things, “they just disagree on the methods to get there.”
Ultimately, the group hopes to finalize their vision statement and then start sharing it with politicians, activists and others. They plan to “meet with state representatives and senators, and perhaps organize a teach-in or rally,” La Roche said. However, they are in no rush; project members are “just letting the vision statement come together,” La Roche added.
“When enough people support [the vision], you can take it to the government and show them we want big changes, not little actions,” Putnam explained. “We’re not exactly sure where it’s going to end up, we’re just going to see how far we can go with it.”
Next on the group’s agenda is a gathering with George Lakey on May 9, followed by a second summit on Sept. 14. Students are welcome to attend both, Putnam emphasized.
“It’s easy to get caught up on individual issues,” La Roche concluded, so “to have in your mind what the future you would like to live in looks like is really useful.” The vision statement transcends the challenges of the present and looks towards an idealistic future.