One of the most enjoyable aspects of serving in the Legislature is meeting new people. I am an avowed extrovert who gets recharged by new acquaintances. Walking through the halls of the statehouse provides a steady injection of energy.
Yesterday the Pro Tem of the Senate grabbed me in the hall as I was on my way out the door he asked it I'd attend a dinner put on by the Council of State Governments (CSG). CSG has been around since 1933 and offers policy expertise, training opportunities, and research resources to legislatures across the country. Although I wanted to be done for the day, I was intrigued. Plus, the dinner was at the New England Culinary Institute. I decided to rally.
I had expressed an interest in the new CSG Task Force on Military and Veterans' Affairs. Like U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, I've always felt that we must treat our vets and their families better. My dad, who came to this country as an immigrant, attended college through ROTC and then was stationed overseas as a captain in the army. I was born on the army base in Heidelberg in what was then West Germany. Although he didn't make the military his career, he is proud of his service in a way that only an immigrant can be.
The woman who heads up the Military Affairs Task Force for CSG was seated across from me, and I was delighted that she was my company for the evening. Born in Jamaica, Debbie Ann Paige moved to Staten Island as a little girl. As a young woman of color, it was a tough transition to the nearly all white enclave of Staten Island.
Although she's worked for CSG for years, she has a master's in history and teaches at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. Paige has become a stealth historian, recording the hidden stories of the black community of Staten Island. She told me about her work on the Louis Napoleon House, a site to commemorate a courageous man whose earlier home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is believed that Napoleon assisted upwards of 3,000 self-emancipators who sought freedom in the North.
Fascinated by the discussion, and trained as a historian myself, we were off and running. I told her I'd recently written a letter of support for a grant application for funding for the African American Heritage Trail in Vermont. I shared the compelling story of Daisy Turner of Grafton, Vt., and how I loved a particularly powerful photo of this remarkable woman. She stands with a shotgun and the carcass of a deer she's killed. I'd written in my letter, "It is the quintessential Vermont picture, and it is made all the more poignant because Daisy adopts the narrative of the self-reliant Vermonter, but also transforms it. We literally see that the "face" of Vermonters includes nonwhite Vermonters."
We discussed the black communities in Vermont and in other overwhelmingly white states and communities. I shared my research of a post-Reconstruction African American women's club in Albany, NY during the period known as "racial uplift". We both agreed it is vitally important to uncover these hidden histories. These stories not only give us a more accurate and complete picture of our nation, but also reveal important aspects of ourselves.
It was an unlookedfor blessing, this conversation. Being open to one event, one experience, allowed me to unexpectedly forge a new friendship across race, across culture, across geography. We were brought together at that place, on that night, to have that discussion.
Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.