We are thrilled to welcome new members to our Vermont leadership committee; Allie Breyer, Brenda Siegel, Scott Weathers, and Jim Vires! December also marks the last year of service of one of our longest standing members of the committee, David Ellenbogen. Since the very beginnings of RAD, David has been a passionate advocate for climate justice and a critical guide in our growth as an organization and community over the past six years.
Mari Cordes and Vickie Lampron recently went to the Capitol in support of reproductive rights – check out Jim Vires’ video recap of them in action during a civil disobedience rally.
Last Wednesday the Just Cause Coalition introduced their legislative priorities and strategy going into the 2022 legislative session while kicking off their new website! We were joined by an array of coalition partners, elected leaders, activists, and community leaders. Learn more about how 2022 is going to be the year we make Just Cause Eviction law. For those that missed the launch, you can watch the event on our YouTube channel.
Mia Schultz wrote a moving piece on why BIPOC leadership is needed in Vermont now more than ever, and how we’re working towards making leadership more accessible through RDI’s Catalyst Leadership program.
We believe that all of our Vermont youth deserve culturally responsive and fact-based curricula, equitable access to educational resources, and a safe school environment. Learn more and help us in this fight by signing the petition.
After our annual membership assembly in November, we’re more prepared than ever for the legislative session in 2022. If you’ve been looking for a way to show up for your community in new ways, join our movement as a sustaining member.
Finally, we wish you warmth, safety, health, and peace this holiday season.
See you next year,
All of us at Rights & Democracy
2021 in review is best seen through the eyes of our members.
One in particular, Brenda Siegel, has stepped into ever-increasing roles of leadership and is a new member of the RAD Vermont Leadership Committee. She recently took part in a successful action sleeping outside of the State House to pressure the Scott administration to address the housing crisis in Vermont.
Before the year came to a close, we wanted to catch up with her about the action, her advocacy, and what she’s looking forward to in the coming year.
First of all, it’s great to see you! When did you decide to launch the State House demonstration? What did those days leading up to the action, and during it, feel like?
The whole decision to sleep on the steps of the State House was carefully planned, but executed very quickly. In a matter of 24 hours, we decided to act once we realized Governor Scott’s plan wasn’t going to protect all who are currently experiencing homelessness. With cold weather coming quickly, Josh Lisenby (lived experience expert on homelessness and friend), Addie Lentzner and I knew we had to do something. Unfortunately we’ve seen time and time again Gov. Scott and his administration erase the homeless population in their press conferences by saying there weren’t people sleeping on the streets.
What we did put a spotlight on the issue with a specific ask; the biggest being to fully reinstate the general assistance motel program including those currently on the street and who may be in the future. Before we started our protest, we did the research to hold the Scott Administration accountable on motel capacity and funding. It was infuriating to hear the administration misrepresent facts when we were out every day, meeting people, and hearing the experiences of so many people facing the reality of the housing crisis. Through our action we amplified the reality of Vermont’s housing crisis. Emergencies require response. Exiting people back to the streets is not acceptable, and we needed him to commit to providing safe and consistent housing for everyone.
We put a name and a face to a struggle more common than most believe in Vermont, a struggle the Scott Administration had the tools to address and was choosing not to. Reporters frequently told us they’ve never thought about folks experiencing homelessness as much as they thought about it during the month we were sleeping on the State House. Now that we’re inside, I hope they don’t forget.
There’s lots of people still out there. There are a lot of people who will be sent back to the streets on March 1st if we do nothing. We don’t as a society do the work to protect folks, even when we have the tools and resources.
Why was this cause so important to you?
I often say homelessness is my issue of origin. Even as a child I understood how privileged we were to have a roof over our heads. This is simply not the reality for so many in Vermont. It wasn’t until I was a single parent that I experienced poverty, and learned that housing insecurity and the threat of having nowhere to go. Homelessness can happen to anyone. My son and I lost our housing and all our belongings twice in his first nine years and lived in unsafe and unhealthy housing for the first six years of his life. When we lost our house in Hurricane Irene, we lost everything. It was almost two years before we had a house again. We did not become homeless because I have safety nets others in my situation did not. I am not better or a harder worker or more capable than others; I simply had a family that I could stay with when everything was gone. Even though we had somewhere to stay, it wasn’t home.
There’s never a day that I don’t walk up the stairs and turn the key to my door and don’t recognize how fortunate I am to be home. I don’t know how any of us go through the day without the understanding of how privileged we are to have a roof over our heads, to be home.
What were some lessons we learned from pandemic?
The pandemic allowed a lot of aid to come very quickly, but many people fell through the cracks. We saw the benefits for people through relief programs like the general assistance motel program. We have to keep fighting to make sure that these short-term solutions are no longer necessary because there will be long-term safe, affordable housing for everyone in Vermont and that we always have immediate emergency housing with an ability to transition folks to long-term housing.
What are you most excited to work on in 2022? What are you most excited to work with RAD on in the future?
I’m eager to see advocacy organizations empower the issues that people bring to them. In my role on the Vermont Leadership Committee with Rights & Democracy, I plan to work closely with members to help them continue the work they are most passionate about, with support from the Rights & Democracy community. These issues are intersectional and many of our members bring a wealth of experience, and we have an opportunity to push and encourage them to lead while expanding our work.
In terms of the housing crisis in Vermont, I’m looking forward to building on some of the progress we made while on the steps, including my new role within the General Assistance Working Group under the Department of Children and Families. Due to our action and the ongoing pressure on the administration, Josh and I are contributing to this working group and have a seat at the table. We’re eager to get to work with legislators on a long-term housing plan that is cohesive, accountable, and reliable. We will go back to the steps if we have to.
I am also excited to work on moving forward some major Overdose Crisis legislation that was introduced last year and will be this year. In addition to my role through RAD on the National Overdose Crisis Cohort with People’s Action, as well as work that I am doing with the Drug Policy Alliance on the same. All of these issues are interconnected and it is time we think of them as such.
What would be your advice to people across Vermont who are looking to take a stand like you did? How do you suggest they begin?
In all of our advocacy, whether it be on housing, the overdose crisis, or voting rights, you have to be strategic. When planning something like this, make sure you have your research done. Josh and I did the work beforehand to make sure we could call out the Scott administration with accuracy, including numbers of motel capacity, data and more, so that we could do things like hold him accountable in advance of his press conferences.
Often it’s not big noise that gains immediate attention and change – it’s a consistent amount of quiet, determined, powerful pressure that gets the job done. If you have any kind of privilege, it is important to use it to center and amplify those most affected by the system you are trying to change; for example, I would tell Josh, “I really think people need to understand from you what the consequences of these policies are. I think they need to hear it from you.” but at the same time, I was ready to bear the brunt of criticism as that should not rest on him. It shouldn’t be this hard for people to raise awareness for such fundamentally human issues. More people who have a public role need to be willing to work alongside – not for – the folks with lived experience.
We don’t know best. We have to be willing to listen to those who do. Real change happens when we lift up those who have faced the problems we are trying to solve.