Sunday, June 5, 2011

First Steps

Back in February, I helped organize a day of climate action at the Vermont Statehouse. I also wrote a VPR commentary about it, which I forgot to post. So here it is! You can listen to it here, or read below...

First Steps

In spite of having lived in Vermont for almost 20 years (with a little time off for good behavior), I’d never visited the Statehouse in Montpelier until just recently. The occasion was a gathering of activists rallying for bold, aggressive climate legislation.

While I didn’t know what to expect from a day in the hallowed halls of power, what I certainly didn’t anticipate was that it would be so much fun.

For one thing, it was easy. In New York City, you have to flash ID, sign in, and go through a metal detector just to get into most large office buildings. But here, in what they call “The People’s House,” you simply walk in the side door - just like you would at home. Of course, at home, you walk through the side door into your mud room, not into what looks like an episode of The West Wing, but still, you just walk in. Nobody questions your right to be there, because they all believe that it IS your right to be there.

Another surprise was discovering how many people I knew. From a Senator I first met in yoga class to a Representative I always run into in my local coffee shop to a lobbyist who’s also a subscriber at Vermont Stage Company, it really did feel just like a concentrated version of my community - which I think, again, is the whole point.

Like Town Meeting Day, it’s part of what distinguishes Vermont as a very human place. Even the most power-brokery power brokers are still your friends and neighbors, and if you bother to show up, you, too, can be part of the process of running the state.

Or, I might add, entertaining the state.

I have a one-woman show I do called The Boycott about the First Lady of the US launching a sex strike to combat global warming. The theme song for the show is a saucy little power ballad which demands, with rather Anglo-Saxonesque urgency, that we all cease and desist our planet-dismantling behavior. At lunch in the statehouse cafeteria (which is just like your high school cafeteria - you’re always looking for where the cool people sit), a couple legislators I didn’t even know came up to ask if I’d be singing this R-rated ditty in the House Chamber that afternoon.

I hadn’t been planning on it, as it wasn’t on my calendar to get arrested that day. But we climate activists did accidentally get into a little trouble anyway. Representative Sarah Edwards from Brattleboro had a climate resolution being read on the floor of the House, and a whole bunch of us sat in to support her and see if it would get passed.

Indeed it was passed, and the climate crew in the back of the room burst into cheers and applause. Turns out, this is NOT an acceptable part of House protocol, and Speaker Shap Smith had to whackety-whack his gavel and tell us to settle down and behave ourselves. Sorry, Speaker Smith. We really didn’t know.

Now, admittedly, this was a light day in the world of citizen participation. We were introducing ourselves to our legislators - and to each other. We weren’t wrangling for specific legislation, battling industry lobbyists, or going toe to toe with climate deniers.

Still, as a first step in building relationships, in learning whom to talk to and how to talk to them, in learning that each of us have a place in the governance of the state, it was a great first step.

We all know addressing climate change and building a sustainable, resilient, carbon-free Vermont won’t be easy. But in an era of widespread political apathy, cynicism, and divisiveness, the fact that we all left Montpelier feeling energized, hopeful, and looking forward to going back is, to my mind, a huge victory in itself.

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