Lissa Harris takes halter at the Stroll
BRATTLEBORO — The Strolling of the Heifer's new executive director doesn't expect that much will change under her leadership.
Lissa Harris, who is taking over from founder and former executive director Orly Munzing, will focus on tweaking the Stroll's many programs developing a vision for more usage of the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Main Street.
"The only thing I am looking at right now is the Windham Grows program," said Harris. The program is a farm and food business "accelerator" that provides participants with mentors, education, tools and financing that promotes sustainability. Business owners receive six months of guidance in the program.
"We've done five food cohorts and we are three-quarters of the way through our first farm cohort," said Harris. The feedback the Stroll has received indicates participants would like to be able to stay in touch with each other and maybe receive advice for up to 18 months.
In addition to Windham Grows, the Strolling of the Heifers also hosts the Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship Program, a local business plan competition, the Locavore Index that rates how well each state is committed to the production of local foods, and the Slow Living Summit. The Stroll also makes microloans to farmers and grants to educators seeking to bring agricultural topics into the classroom.
And, of course, there's the annual Strolling of the Heifers, which began in 2002 with children leading heifers down Main Street in Brattleboro. The parade that followed included farmers, other animals, floats, tractors, clowns and music. Until 2008, the Dairy Festival featuring food, music, dancing, educational displays, vendors and children's activities had been held on the grounds of the Brattleboro Retreat. That evolved into the Slow Living Expo and expanded to include the Brattleboro Common. In 2019, the Expo was moved from the grounds of the Retreat and centered around the Common.
"This year we will be keeping it on the Common," said Harris. "We just had our first logistics meeting and we are working on a map to see where everything will fit."
Prior to joining the Stroll, Harris was in charge of marketing and fundraising at the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust for two years. Harris and her family moved to Windham County from Long Island where she worked for national organizations like the American Cancer Society and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Harris also worked as a staff reporter for a local newspaper in New York and ran her own marketing business. Her husband is a photographer.
"My aunt and uncle live in Marlboro," said Harris. "I've been coming to this area since I was a little tiny sprite."
Harris met Munzing while she was creating content for the Housing Trust's newsletter.
"The Housing Trust had a couple of residents who were participating in the Farm-to-Table Apprenticeship Program," she said. "When I met Orly, we just connected right away."
Harris said Munzing leaves in place a well-functioning system that gives her time to get acclimated to her new job. She sees this first year on the job as an opportunity to see how things work and maybe think about what the future of the Stroll will look like.
"My magic wand wish would be to make the River Garden more inviting to the public, maybe create some cooperative work space," she said. "We have this amazing kitchen that we could rent out or use as a cooperative space. I'd love to see a second floor in the building with offices or a co-working space."
But for now, Harris is focused on making this year's Strolling of the Heifers and the Slow Living Summit as successful as previous years. She is even thinking about last year's parade, when protesters briefly stopped the parade for a climate change "die-in."
"I wouldn't be surprised if it happened again this year," said Harris. "It wouldn't be Brattleboro if something like that didn't happen. It's part of our democracy to let people voice their opinions."
Harris noted that the protest was well handled by local police and it only delayed the parade by a few minutes.
"It's a minor inconvenience to allow someone to express how they feel," she said. "But if it's a hot day and if there are animals in the street, then there could be issues. Fortunately, we have vets on hand to make sure all the animals are well hydrated and well fed."
Harris would also like to see the Stroll become more inclusive and more appealing to people of color.
"It's not just about who is here, but also about who do we want to invite here," she said. "There may not be a lot of people of color in Vermont, but that doesn't mean we can't be inviting to people of color from all over. This is a place they may one day want to hang their hat if we make it welcoming."
To learn more about the Strolling of the Heifers, visit www.strollingoftheheifers.com.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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