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Brenda Siegel: The Vermont we are

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Across Vermont, the nation and the world we are learning a new and temporary way of living right now. We are having the experience of the world closing. In my greatest fears as a mom, this is one that I might only have imagined and dismissed as irrational. It is not something that most of us ever could have conceived of in the United States and certainly not in Vermont. Many of us are figuring out how to homeschool, use Zoom and Facebook Live effectively, and beginning to worry about how we ration groceries if this goes on too long. What if we can't get our prescriptions? How will we continue to pay our bills? Then, several times a day, thinking "how long are we going to be home for?" These are all real and rational fears that each of us is contending with right now.

As a mom, figuring out the balance of allowing my son to grieve the loss of the end of his senior year in high school and ease him into a daily schedule that does not allow him to crumble, takes up a lot of my thoughts. Wondering why he has to experience so much crisis before he ever leaves the nest. As he and I were sitting in the car, waiting for people walking past to be far enough away as to ensure social distance, there was a little kid playing and bouncing down the street. My son said to me, "I wish I were that age right now. I wouldn't be aware, I could just have fun. Carefree. I would not remember this when it was all over." I smiled at him as my heart sank. I watch as parents of young children try to muster up ideas for homeschooling, while working from home, while helping our neighbors. As they, like all of us, worry, take deep breaths, regroup and smile for the little and not so little people who rely on us to keep a positive outlook and hope. They need us to keep pointing out the positives.

The day after my campaign for lieutenant governor announced that we would not be doing any in-person campaign activities, we made the decision to utilize our tools and resources to help in any way that we could. We set up a form and system for folks who want to help their neighbor and those in need, now known as "Statewide Mutual Aid." Almost simultaneously or just after we did this, localized efforts began to pop up. Essex, at the same time. Montpelier and Burlington. A few days later, Rutland County, Addison County. Then Brattleboro, Putney and now Bennington County and more. This means that organized communities will be more able to meet the need as it grows. Folks are stepping up in true Vermont fashion to help one another. We still have our mutual aid set up, because we are able to catch areas that don't have one yet (countywides and small towns) or people that are more comfortable helping or asking for help this way. Now we are helping when volunteers ask to set up these more localized mutual aid efforts in their area as well as offering fun community building virtual events throughout the week.

I experienced this same thing in Tropical Storm Irene. My son and I had lost everything and folks reached out. In fact, we ourselves went into communities more devastated than our own in hazmat suits and helped clean out houses and throw away belongings. We responded to relief efforts and reached out to our neighbors. Folks did this all across Vermont then, and gave of themselves and their time in immeasurable ways. I am watching Vermonters, true to form, across political divides, do the same today. The difference being that all of us are impacted. Every last one. Yet, still, people are standing up and helping in every way that they can.

As we experience this, the meaning of "essential worker" has become clear. The grocery workers, nurses, doctors, child care providers, oil and gas delivery, janitors in hospitals and grocery stores, LPNs and more. The same people that we often argue do not deserve a liveable wage or whose administrations fight on fair union contracts. We need them; without them we simply would not have what we need right now in this crisis. They put themselves and their families at risk going to work every day, because we count on them for survival. I implore us to remember this moment, the next time these issues are on the floor of our legislature or in your boardroom. These folks have only asked us for the bare minimum to survive; considering that our survival depends on them, I encourage us to make that a priority.

This crisis has pointed out with great clarity the gaping holes in our system. The mess that Governor Scott left us with when he did not sign mandatory paid family and medical leave in 2018. The clear case for Medicare For All. The exact reason why we need people to earn a livable wage. The concept that in a society where most people are living at or below the margins, the economy and the very structure with which it depends could crumble at any moment. We are seeing this now and have the opportunity to realign our economy to build from the bottom up and be people centered as to protect us from reaching this crisis point again. We are also seeing the beauty of Vermonters. In a moment when, not some but all of us are in crisis. When teachers are teaching and parenting at the same moment. When all parents have become teachers. When our family relationships and dynamics are being pressed. When we are giving praise and thanks to social media and Zoom technologies to keep us connected. When many of us have lost all income for the time being. When we are all tired and unsure of how to proceed. In this moment, we are finding our strength in humanity to help and support one another. Whether it is as a volunteer, organizer, elected official, health care provider, grocery worker, employer, employee, mama or papa, etc. No matter who we are and what we do, we are finding out just how much our communities mean to us and we are working to keep our communities together.

I am reminded that in crisis, we walk forward together. All of us. Let us remember this humanity, long past this moment. Let us never forget how important our communities are today and never take for granted the light and love that connection brings. Vermont is a strong community in crisis. Let's continue to carry that in the days beyond.

From my home to yours, we are thinking of you in this time.

Brenda Siegel is a 2020 candidate for lieutenant governer and former Democratic candidate for governor, founder and director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, vice chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She is an anti-poverty activist and single mom from Newfane. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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