This commentary was written by Christina Deeley of Hinesburg. Deeley is a mother of four and works as a librarian and diversity, equity and inclusion coach. She is a member of the Emerge Vermont Class of 2020.
Recently the Brandon Reporter published a story about the appointment of a new Brandon Selectboard member. The article noted that a white man was appointed to the position instead of the two highly qualified women who also applied, and it was noted that it had been over ten years since a woman held a seat on the Brandon Selectboard.
While reading, my mind flashed back to two years ago, when I attempted to join the Hinesburg Selectboard for a temporary appointment. That seat was appointed to an older white woman, after much discussion about her years of service on town committees. In fact, much of what follows is from a letter I wrote to the Hinesburg Selectboard in October 2020, yet it still applies to so much of Vermont.
It is regularly said by people of a certain generation that “we need to get more people involved in town politics.” That sentiment is in complete opposition to the gatekeeping (however unintentional it may be) regularly done by demanding a certain level of “experience” and only appointing candidates the Selectboard is both familiar and comfortable working with.
Women with young families, people of color, new residents of our town, young professionals, students, and workers with long or odd hours often struggle to gain the experience deemed necessary for participating in local government. For women with young families, statistically, we must bear the brunt of working while simultaneously balancing schooling, child care, pandemic and household duties. For new residents, young professionals and students, the implicit requirement of experience sets a high bar for entry that deters and even outright blocks important voices from entering critical conversations.
These limitations have huge impacts on the plausibility of engaging with career and volunteer experiences. By the time we have the “experience” to be considered, we are no longer able to be the voices for young families because we have been sidelined until our children are older, our schedules become more flexible, our names become more recognizable and we no longer speak from within the same demographics we sought to represent.
I would implore selectboards to spend some time looking at their makeup and the makeup of town committees. How many members are women? How many, regardless of gender, are under the age of 40? Under the age of 50? How many are Black, Indigenous or people of color? How many are frontline workers rather than members of the professional and managerial class? Consider the reasons towns often have so many open committee positions.
One of the major issues with local boards and committees is they are all held on weeknights with start times of 6 or 7 p.m., which puts women with children, and those who work long or odd hours, at a significant disadvantage for participating. Such late hours are simply not sustainable or accessible in the long term for people, especially those with young children. Possible solutions could be providing child care, or having committee members agree to a time that works for all members, instead of the town deciding when meetings are held, or shared committee positions with alternating attendance.
In a discussion on WDEV radio, Emerge Vermont Director Elaine Haney noted that less than a third of Selectboard members statewide are women. Lower numbers of women in local politics has impacts outside of local government. As we have seen in my town of Hinesburg, involvement in local politics, like a seat on the Selectboard, recently helped a retired, white man to his successful primary run for the Vermont House of Representatives.
Full disclosure, the candidate he beat in that primary was me. It may seem like sour grapes after losing, but I know that as an Emerge Vermont alum, I ran a good campaign and I am proud of my efforts. It is hard to win elections against name recognition and incumbency. The name recognition that local politics gave my opponent, in addition to the shadow of a 75-year history of male representation from my town in Montpelier, aided his win.
As Ijeoma Oluo writes in her book “Mediocre,” “Politics that does not always center white men is something that white men can get used to — and they must.” In Vermont, this means that our selectboards and local politics need to open up. It means taking a hard look at the fact that our state has never sent a woman to Washington, D.C. Until we reflect upon and change the systems that disenfranchise women, people of color, parents of young families, students, workers, and young professionals from participating, we will continue to lack important and equitable representation in our towns and state.