Becca Balint: Agency and access

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A man stopped me in the hall of Vermont's Statehouse the other day and asked, "How do I get in to hear one of the committees?" I told him, "You just open the door and walk in. It's 'The People's House,' and we mean it."

Vermont's Statehouse is one of the most accessible in the nation. Regular citizens and their advocates, along with tourists and state workers, stream through the Capitol Building each day. It is bustling and bursting at the seams with activity most days. An acquaintance grabbed me in the lobby after a dizzying day of political action last week and said, "My head is spinning! There is so much frenetic energy in this building; I don't know how you do it every day."

It is extremely challenging to find a quiet place under the Dome in which to think or talk. I have a friend in the Senate who often attempts to have his private conversations in the middle of the empty House of Representatives. He explained to me that although you will certainly be seen, and your presence noted, the giant hall provides a modicum of privacy.

Another friend swears by the so-called Marble Palace (the historic subterranean men's urinal) when she needs a space to talk outside of the fray. She led me down there last week so that we could talk privately; I'd received a troubling phone call about a very sick friend. After assessing that it was devoid of visitors, we talked and cried and were not interrupted. And yet folks still stopped me throughout the day to ask if I was okay. There are no secrets under the Golden Dome.

Despite the remarkable accessibility and the openness of our Capitol building, I know many advocates, activists, and citizens still sometimes feel shut out of the political process. Some of this is due to the nature of representative government. We are not a direct democracy akin to the ancient Greeks. (And of course, the Greeks left out huge swaths of their population when it came to voting.) As well, we pride ourselves on being a citizen legislature, but we often fail to acknowledge its inherent shortcomings. Because we all have other jobs and no staff to assist us or direct traffic, some calls and emails will go answered. It is not humanly possible to respond to them all, but that feels rotten both for citizens and for legislators.

What has helped me wrestle with this dilemma of finding "agency and access" is to remember something a professor told me when I earned my MA in history. She, a scholar of African history, was one of my advisors and oversaw my study of Mozambique under colonial rule. As one of the only African American professors in the department, she had personally dealt with these issues throughout her academic career. She asked me one day, as she surveyed my work, "Where is their power and where do they exert it?"

She explained that although the people of Mozambique lived under Portuguese rule that was certainly exploitative and cruel, she urged me to read the histories with an eye to finding examples of agency and resistance. Despite the political and social barriers, the citizens of Mozambique persistently, tenaciously found ways to rebel and demonstrate their agency.

As a woman, as a gay person, as a newcomer to politics, it is not always easy to find clear avenues for agency and influence. But they do exist, and I am determined to find them. The folks back home depend on it.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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