Activists look to unite at WeCAN fair

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BRATTLEBORO — Vermont Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint says that shortly after high school, she shaved her hair into a mohawk and moved to New York City.

"And I wore lots of black and lots of safety pins," she told attendees of the Windham County Action Network's Spring into Action Fair at Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development on Sunday afternoon. "And I was all about punk rock and anarchy."

Balint, serving as keynote speaker for Sunday's event, said she had been voted "most humorous" and "All-American" by her high school class but had held the secret of being a gay woman for eight "long" years." Feeling so alone at the age of 18, she said she seriously considered taking her own life. She wondered if she would have to conceal her true identity throughout her entire career.

"These experiences shaped me and I carry them into the Statehouse with me every single day," she said, receiving a huge round of applause from the group gathered to listen to panels about racial justice, social justice, family-friendly activism, political action, economic justice and climate justice. "We are here to build coalitions."

Balint urged attendees to allow one another space to express themselves and make mistakes. She noted the presence of several other legislators at the event and thanked attendees for coming — whether they were lifelong activists, newbies or somewhere in between. She recalled campaigning on Election Day in November then heading to a hotel in Burlington with Ann Braden, president of Gun Sense Vermont.

"We wanted to be together with hundreds of people watching history being made; watching us elect only our second woman governor, watching us elect our first female president," Balint said. "We were giddy and we were hopeful, and we fully expected that history would be made. We told ourselves America wouldn't possibly elect a racist, a sexist, a misogynist, a conman, someone who lies compulsively and cavorts with white supremacists and anti-Semites. In short, a man seemingly devoid of a moral compass. Of course, we were horribly wrong. And racism played a part. And white privilege played a big part. And sexism, of course, played a part. And the billionaire class played their part. But driving all of this was this palpable, incredible fear. And number 45 sure knew how to whoop up the fear. And he brought so many people in with his hateful rhetoric."

In rising against that, Balint said, "We're trying not to lose our humanity, not to lose our courage, not to lose our compassion and our love."

"I thought that we were further along in our evolution as Americans, as humans. And it was utterly crushing to realize that we had so, so far to go in our national journey towards true justice," Balint said, later adding, "We need to come up against conflicts together. We have to engage honestly if we expect other people to engage honestly with us. And we do not have the luxury of a trial run. We don't. We don't have time to practice. We have to get things right but we don't have to get them exactly right. I sincerely believe that our democracy is at risk."

She encouraged attendees to let their allies in before saying, "Onward with courage."

"This time in our history is unprecedented for many of us," Braden said to the group. "And the rise in activism we've seen since the election has the power to be truly transformative in our society, but only if we can find a way to keep it up."

She called for activists to find their passion and effective strategies, but warned that change "still takes a really long time."

Braden recalled her anger after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. That helped lead to the start of Gun Sense Vermont.

Braden urged attendees to channel their anger into love because that form carried more opportunities for changing the minds of people.

"Think about how invigorating it is to be in a packed room of people, who care about making a difference," she said, adding, "Social media can be great but getting together with people is really powerful. This community has the ability to be a force for change."

The Afrobeat band Vermont Shakedown performed a set at the event that saw children and adults dancing, and attendees ate lunch from Anon's Thai Food and Tito's Taqueria. To the side of the stage hung a banner saying "Hate Does Not Grow Well In the Rocky Soil of Vermont."

"This is about igniting more torches to get out and do the work," said Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity. "This is really where the rubber meets the road today."

The idea of the event, he said, was "not to recreate the wheel but grow the wheel we currently have."

Emilie Kornheiser said she was interested in having a conversation about ends and means. By talking and listening, she told attendees, they could get closer to reaching solidarity.

"The reason that I love Vermont, the reason that I live here still despite many struggles, is because it feels knowable to me," she said. "And I bet it feels very knowable to many of you."

Kornheiser said she has the ability to get to know legislators and different groups in the community.

"With all that possibility of knowing, I can make informed decisions and you can too," she added.

Participating panelists represented the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, Black Lives Matter Vermont, Community Equity Collaborative, Lost River Racial Justice, Windham County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Green Mountain Crossroads, Families First, Women's Freedom Center, Women's Action Team, Planned Parenthood Defenders of Southern Vermont, the Hive Mutual Support Network, Parenting for Social Justice, Mother Up! Parents Exchange for Change, Family Solidarity Action Network, Local Love Bridgade, Brattleboro Indivisible, Sister District Project/Swing Left, Putney Huddle, Windham County Democrats, Windham County Progressives, Civic Engagement 101, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Rights and Democracy, Vermont Workers' Center, the Root Social Justice Center, Cross Class Dialogue Circle, Green America's Green Business Network, 350 Brattleboro, Post Oil Solutions, Edible Brattleboro, Living Earth Action Group, and Safe and Green Campaign. A yoga session was hosted by Laura Tabachnik of Yoga Locally.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.


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