MONTPELIER — Progressive advocacy groups gathered in force Wednesday at the Statehouse for the opening of the legislative session, promoting what is called the People Power Lobby and explaining ongoing cooperative efforts to push for change.
Grassroots groups, including Rights & Democracy, 350 Vermont, Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools, ACLU Vermont, Green Mountain Self-Advocates, Vermont Coalition For Disability Rights, Migrant Justice, and the Rutland Area NAACP participated.
"It was a great day, although the weather got in the way of a few people attending," said Kate Logan, RAD's director of programming and policy following an afternoon press conference.
Along with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Logan and representatives from the ACLU Vermont and other organizations provided information about the People's Lobby and the basics of grassroots advocacy. A panel discussion followed on issues the several groups represented hope to pursue during the session.
"Despite the weather, we had a full house for our lobbying training," Logan said, "as well as for the People's Platform panel."
She added, "So we all got to hear from each other about what our legislative agendas will be. We are putting a communications plan together to make sure everybody has information about where things are at during the legislative session, as they progressed."
James Haslam, executive director of Rights and Democracy Vermont, and others during the press conference referred to the high level of turnover in the Legislature and its greater diversity as a source of inspiration and enthusiasm that significant change is possible this year.
The number of new faces in the Legislature this session is the highest in more than 20 years.
"Opening day of the People Power Lobby has been astonishing," Haslam said. "Thank you. So many people came out, braving tough road conditions to come out, because these things are really important."
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, and Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, were among the new lawmakers who spoke during the conference. They were joined other lawmakers and by several high school students who spoke of advocacy in their schools and their communities and later announced the formation of the Vermont Youth Lobby.
James said her daughter recently expressed fear about someday bringing a child into a world with the threat of climate change. The new House member said that convinced to redouble her efforts to confront "a global challenge that impacts all of us."
The crisis also is an opportunity, she said, to create a greener economy and environment to benefit everyone, adding that "in many ways Vermont is in the forefront of this work."
"I ran for office because I wanted a government that works for us, and by us, for all of us," Kornheiser said.
In order for that to happen, she said, "we need to have an economy that works for all of us"
With a $15 minimum wage, paid family medical leave, continued strong worker protections, "we can take steps toward an economy, for a community where we all can thrive," she said.
Hashim, who has served for seven years as a Vermont State Police trooper, said he will pursue legislative issues related to discrimination in the criminal justice system, including in incarceration rates, the bail and bond system and sentencing.
"This is a system that needs to change, and we have to work toward reducing our criminal population by finding alternatives to incarceration in restorative justice," he said.
Hashim promised to work to reduce Vermont's reliance on prisons out of state to house some of its inmates, and vowed that "the very first bill I am drafting will be a prohibition on the construction on any privatized prisons."
Logan said of the People's Lobby, "What we would like to do over the course of the session is increasingly make folks and their communities aware of who their resources are in the Statehouse, and we're connecting them on the issues that they care most about."
Rights and Democracy has its own legislative agenda, she said, "and we heard from 12 other organizations about their legislative agendas, and the people who were at that [discussion panel] table today are the people's resources at the Statehouse. So we want to do a better and better job of making sure when people care about an issue they know as much as they can about the issue and they know who they need to talk to."
A communications network is being developed to update individuals and groups about what is happening at the Statehouse, Logan said, including a weekly People's Lobby report.