BRATTLEBORO — Emilie Kornheiser is looking forward to learning about women from different communities throughout the entire Green Mountain State.
"When I think about my work on the women's commission, I imagine creating a state where policy and resources and programs and lifestyles all converge for women to be able to live their lives with whatever dignity they want," she said. "What do women in Pownal and Putney and Newport have in common with each other? And what resources and policies do they need to succeed?"
The Vermont Commission on Women has been working on advancing women and girls' rights and opportunities since 1964. Its 16 members are volunteers who collaborate with 27 organizations dedicated to related issues and initiatives.
Kornheiser is one of two new appointees. She "comes to her work with a passion for community voice, leadership, and most importantly, to support communities to own and tell their own stories — understanding and agreeing to a shared vision and outcomes," stated a press release.
Kornheiser is early childhood action plan director at Building Bright Futures and she works with Promise Communities for the state of Vermont. She previously served as an international development consultant with a private firm, mostly under federal contract, helping government agencies meet humanitarian and community development goals.
"The Women's Commission seems like a natural outgrowth of this work," she said. "They just appointed me a month ago and they take August off, so my first meeting's going to be in September."
Kornheiser expects a lot of the focus at the commission now will be on the economic disparity between men and women. She highlighted a troubling statistic: American women as a whole are 35 percent more likely to live in poverty than men. She said the numbers are even worse for women of color.
"Female-headed households with children are also much more likely to be in poverty than male-headed households or households headed by married couples," she said. "And life can be incredibly financially tough for elderly women: Women make up nearly two-thirds (64.6 percent) of all poor people 65 and older in 2015."
Kornheiser said through her jobs, she has helped find "leverage points in systems" and ways in which to make change across those systems.
"Sometimes that's legislation, sometimes opinion," she said. "Sometimes, it's three people in an office having a conversation."
It's not only the potential for change Kornheiser saw with the commission but the way she could offer different perspectives she's seen.
At the Agency of Human Services, she had a firsthand look at how the welfare system works. She met one-on-one with clients as a Reach Up case manager and had been stationed at the Vermont Department of Economic Services office in Brattleboro where she would refer people to the right places. Visitors at the front desk were often in a state of crisis, she said.
The idea of Promise Communities, Kornheiser said, is to improve places for children. Efforts in this vein are underway in the Green Street neighborhood in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls.
Kornheiser's job at Building Bright Futures is about making changes that will benefit kids in early childhood and their families. With the commission, she hopes to align all the work.
"We have a lot of folks in Vermont who aren't entering the workforce, primarily women, and that's to the detriment of our economy and our lives," she said.
One area of focus might be increasing the minimum wage to $15. Vermont's minimum wage is now at $10 and it will go to $10.50 next year.
Kornheiser said the issue affects early care education centers, but mostly women and mothers.
"I think we need to find ways for people to enter the workforce and make a living wage in the workforce," she said. "Sometimes economic security doesn't mean working necessarily; it means living in a community where your needs are met with help from your neighbors. Continuing to support those social networks that are the fabric of Vermont is just as important for economic security as everyone being able to get where they're going and make a living while they're there. But I do think we need to find a way to make our economy work regionally. We're seeing a lot of growth in Chittenden but not as much work in other areas."
Kornheiser said entrepreneurship is different for women in Vermont, where there's job training, small business support and incubation systems.
"But much of our society — from office chairs to business clothing — a lot of that is designed by default for men," she said.
Kornheiser's involvement in community work in Brattleboro started when she became a Town Meeting representative and a member of the town's Human Services Committee. She then joined the Brattleboro Food Co-Op board and founded a feminist-activist network called the Women's Action Team. She's also a founding member and lead organizer for WeCAN, the Windham County Action Network.
Kornheiser lives in West Brattleboro in a converted barn with her son Solomon, her partner John and their dog named Kaiser. She has lived in town on and off for over 20 years. She came to the area as a Marlboro College student at the age of 17.
"For the last few years, it's felt like such a gift that I could live in a community where folks have gotten to see me in different stages of my life," she said. "Riotous college student, being a young parent or entering whatever this next stage is, being a professional."
She sees a lot of opportunity for overcoming disparity between men and women.
"The hope I see in there is women turning out for the ballot box, women running for office, women entering the economic arena, caring for their children with dignity and being in loving partnership with the community, men and everyone else," she said. "People have been saying this for 100 years or more: 'If we live in a society where more than half the people in the society, whether people of color or women or folks with different abilities, are structurally unable to fully participate in the society then society cannot reach its full potential.'"
The commission is part of Korneheiser's "path" to help reach that potential.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.