Fresh voices: Women show path to leadership

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Shelburne Democrats invited former Shelburne Representative Joan Lenes, left, and Ebony Nyoni, founder of Black Lives Matter Vermont, to a discussion on the importance of diverse voices in government.

Some dairy farmers, an artist, a social worker and an apple farmer gathered around a table to write some laws.

That’s not the beginning of a joke; rather, it’s an average day in the Vermont Statehouse, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, recalls from her days on the House Agriculture Committee.

Something seemed off when they were discussing a bill about tax credits for apple farmers. The committee decided that, if there was a financial loss within a calendar year, apple farmers could apply for the credit. At the time, she was working on an apple farm and knew that a fiscal year would make more sense, because of the timing the crop cycle.

“It was a stupid little thing,” Johnson said, but she caught it. She used the story to explain why it’s important to have people from various backgrounds in policy-making positions.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson.

Johnson spoke Monday evening at a panel discussion hosted by Shelburne Democrats. Other panelists were Joan Lenes, a former Shelburne state legislator, and Ebony Nyoni, founder of Black Lives Matter Vermont. The topic: Getting a rich variety of community voices to the table.

In particular, women’s voices have been missing at the table. No Vermont woman has held federal office. Of the 296 state constitutional officers elected since 1778, only 11 have been women, including a single female governor — Madeleine Kunin, who led the state from 1985 to 1991.

In 2016, there were 65 women in the 150-seat House of Representatives, and nine in the 30-member Senate, for a total of 74 women in the Legislature. Two of the six Chittenden County senators are women and both of Shelburne’s representatives are women.

As of 2016, 21 percent of local Selectboard members were women, according to Emerge Vermont. Two of the five Shelburne Selectboard members are women; one woman is on the five-member Charlotte Selectboard, and two of the five Hinesburg Selectboard members are women.

“The Legislature is crafting laws of a society; society should be reflected in the process,” Johnson said.

That means bringing young people to the table when talking about attracting young families to Vermont, and keeping the ones already here.

It means bringing women to the table when talking about ways to prevent sexual harassment and abuse, especially in the age of #MeToo.

It also means, she said, having people of color at the table not only because of their bringing experiences with oppression, but “seat belt laws and what constitutes a traffic stop.”

All the women at the Shelburne table got into politics for similar reasons: They didn’t see their values reflected by the elected officials who held the seats they wound up running for.

“I never had a plan to be in government, but I wanted to be involved,” Lenes said. Then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin called Lenes up and asked her to run against the Republican who held a Shelburne seat in the Vermont House.

Lenes thought it was a joke. She didn’t believe it was actually Kunin on the line, and asked who was really there. Kunin replied it was actually she.

Then, in running for office, Lenes said she “realized policy was important, because it’s what drives things.” In her time in the House, 2007 to 2016, Lenes said she realized that “the richness of policy development is the richness of conversation.”

Talking things through with people of different backgrounds helps to shape policy so it’s better for everyone, she said.

After Lenes told her story about Kunin asking her to run, Johnson said she, too, didn’t run until someone asked her to do so.

And state Reps. Jessica Brumstead and Kathryn Webb, who represent Shelburne and St. George in the House today, said they, too, ran after being invited to do so.

All three women at the Shelburne table lost their first race.

Johnson and Lenes both ran again for the House; Johnson won her second race, and Lenes won her third.

Nyoni ran her first race this spring, seeking a seat on the Winooski City Council. She lost. She has not decided on her next steps, but says she’s continually working to strengthen her platform, especially since women of color are underrepresented in Vermont government.

Johnson knew she’d run again, even if she lost that first race. Before she even knew the Election Night results, she announced publicly that she’d be running again in two years.

Though she lost, Johnson won 40 percent of the vote, and that was enough to keep her going.

Her motivation: “Democracy is irrelevant if voters don’t have a choice,” she said.

Fast-forward 14 years and Johnson became speaker of the Vermont House as “that president” was taking office, she said. People begged her, “You have to protect us from him,” she said.

It was “an enormous weight,” Johnson said. “Oreos and Netflix didn’t work” to ease her mind. Instead, “I gathered the team and started listening to people.”

Obstacles are a part of running for office, each woman said.

Nyoni started campaigning just as she got back from vacation. She enrolled in an Emerge Vermont training program, a boot camp to teach Democratic women how to campaign for office, and how to raise the money then need for the campaign.

At the camp, she found camaraderie — “sisters” who helped her through the ups and downs of the campaign trail. She also mentored girls in the community, and gained hope there because the girls could see it was possible for her to run for office, even though she didn’t win the first round.

“We as women need to step through that door,” Nyoni said. “We need to be the role models” for girls and people of color.

Johnson also knows the power of being a role model for girls. She enjoys showing girls her office, and talking to them as they visit the Statehouse.

A few weeks ago, Johnson received an email from a teacher whose students had visited the Statehouse. One of the girls had met Johnson previously. The teacher overheard the girl telling a friend, “I’ve met her and she’s a girl and she’s in charge and we are friends.”

Now, Johnson said, “she can see herself as that because she has the role model I never did.”

Leave a Reply

Shelburne News requires that you use your full name, along with a valid email address. Your email address will not be published, shared, or used for promotional purposes. Please see our guidelines for posting for full details.