This commentary is by Mia Schultz, the catalyst leadership coordinator for Rights and Democracy in Vermont, where she focuses on leadership development for BIPOC people and other historically marginalized groups in Vermont and New Hampshire. She is also president of the Rutland Area NAACP.
The first time I voted in municipal elections after moving to Vermont seven years ago, I noticed that many seats were unopposed. As a new community member, I had no information about the candidates and I felt I had little choice but to vote for the only people on the ballot.
That sent a profound message to me about the state of political engagement in my new community.
As I settled in, I began engaging in the local Rights & Democracy chapter and local Democratic Party governance roles. I found many people who cared about issues impacting our community, but this did not necessarily translate into running for municipal office.
This highlighted for me the barriers to entering elected leadership roles for a diverse set of candidates, especially those most impacted by the crises we face.
A recent UVM study found that municipal leadership positions across Vermont are predominantly held by older, white males. This is no accident. Our systems are set up with obstacles that make it harder for womxn, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folx, people with disabilities, and the working class to run for and hold elected positions.
For example, municipal offices in Vermont are usually part-time positions with virtually no staff support, and lack supports like child care — roadblocks that prevent anyone without existing financial resources and support systems from taking on these roles.
While there has been a rise in grassroots organizing to support new leaders to get elected, there is still little ongoing support for these leaders once in office. The same is often true in non-elected positions of community leadership. Without the tools to thrive, expand their leadership, and protect their own safety and security, leaders are frequently left burned out and frustrated. Threats on BIPOC leaders have taken a serious toll and pushed committed community leaders to step down.
This must change. Policies that heal current harms and ensure that our most impacted communities can prosper will lift us all up. To build a true multiracial democracy and win this vision, we must transform decision-making spaces to be truly representative, accessible and accountable, and to center the experiences of those most impacted.
As a Black woman in community leadership, I have personally been in decision-making spaces where I felt a palpable disconnect between my reality and the reality of those around me.
I recall attending one meeting about health care where most people were white, cisgendered, and upper middle class and the conversation centered on concerns about premium increases, while I was concerned about my family’s basic humanity being challenged when we seek medical care. I am certain that for someone who is trans, or someone with disabilities, these experiences must be heard and validated as well to move toward changes that benefit us all.
At Rights & Democracy Institute, we have been asking: How can we ensure all voices are included in municipal decision-making, and how can we as a grassroots movement organization help make this happen by providing more holistic support for emerging leaders? This was one of the driving thoughts behind our new program, Catalyst Leadership.
Founded in 2016, Rights & Democracy Institute has focused on developing leaders who understand the interconnection of human rights and the need to build a true multiracial democracy. Catalyst Leadership was created to support new leaders from most impacted communities across New Hampshire and Vermont who are committed to economic, racial and climate justice, by providing all the tools they need to succeed. To assist in the process, we have included advisers who are experienced leaders also from most impacted communities.
In our first cohort this year, 20 participants became empowered to tell their stories and speak their truths about issues that matter to all of us. We created a safe space to build trust, deepen relationships, and validate experiences.
One of the most powerful things about this journey was planting the seed for emerging leaders to say: I do belong in decision-making spaces and my perspective needs to be represented.
After completing the training, one participant, Angela Lawrence, was elected as the first Black woman chair of the Democratic Party in Windham County. She affirms that Catalyst helped give her the courage to step into this role.
Catalyst is an important step toward breaking down barriers to entry, but as the name suggests, it is just the beginning — the spark that lights the fire. We still need much more ongoing support for new leaders, and a transformation of the spaces where decisions are made. This will take more than one program; it’s an ongoing part of the work for building a multiracial democracy and transformative change.
I am excited to continue the journey and to keep building with these leaders and with the next Catalyst cohort. You can learn more and hear participants’ stories at the upcoming RDI Human Rights Awards on Dec. 10. At Rights & Democracy Institute, we believe in imagining a world of unity and a future we want to live in; our Human Rights Awards celebrate the advocates working so hard to make this a reality. Please join us.