Becca Balint: Picturing yourself with a life in the political world

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At the end of a speech I gave to the Girls State program several years ago, one of the high school students asked me about my political heroes. The students were clearly surprised when I named my political icons. They weren't politicians they'd ever heard of before: Bella Abzug, Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara Jordan, Tammy Baldwin, and my greatest political hero, Shirley Chisholm — the first African American woman elected to Congress. These women, trail blazers all, were the ones who helped me imagine a political life for myself when I personally knew no one in politics and couldn't quite visualize a path for myself.

I never get tired of watching old video footage of Shirley Chisholm's speeches. The seven term congresswoman somehow managed to be simultaneously matter of fact and inspiring. Born to a mother from Barbados and a father from Guyana, she spent chunks of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother. Her mother was a domestic worker; her father worked in a factory. As a working class African American woman, and as the child of immigrants, Chisholm constantly — skillfully — navigated a political world in which she was not supposed to succeed.

Yet, she deeply understood her skills. She once said, "My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn't always discuss for reasons of political expediency." And she exuded a beautiful confidence. I marvel at her self-possession.

When Chisholm announced her historic run for president, she'd had few political role models to turn to, and yet she still unabashedly owned the stage. When I feel down about my work in Montpelier, I watch Chisholm video clips and her self-assurance always centers and inspires me.

Although I am no Shirley Chisholm, I know I'm in a unique position to help guide young people who also want to find a place for themselves in politics. Recently I became involved in a program called Girls Rock the Capitol (GRTC) run by the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains. GRTC is a legislative internship and mentoring program for high school girls that pairs students with female legislators. I'm excited to participate and also a little sad for my teenage self that I'd not had a similar program.

My mentee is a teen I've known since she was a baby when her parents and I worked together at Farm and Wilderness in Plymouth, Vt. She participated in the legislative page program at the Vermont Statehouse when she was in 8th grade, and that special experience got her curious about a life in politics.

After our first of several "shadowing" days, I asked her to reflect upon and write about her initial impressions. She said astutely, "[P]ower is held mostly in the personal relationships and connections that are made and the vitality of these connections." She also remarked on how fascinating it is to watch people interact who are politically or philosophical "pitted" against each other but still must work together. Even legislators who are ostensibly in "opposition" to each other must build strong daily relationships. She ended her reflection with the realization that diplomacy was critically important — even in our small state.

She closed by expressing her sincerest gratitude that she has the opportunity to see the legislature in action though my willingness to mentor her. But I think I felt more thankful that I had the chance to use my position to stretch her understanding of the political world and to help her see that she can have a place in it.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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