BRATTLEBORO—Every spring, Southeastern Vermont Community Action has an annual meeting, open to the public, to showcase its work.
From its Westminster headquarters and three thrift stores, SEVCA’s staff of approximately 100 workers addresses a wide range of poverty-related needs, including assistance with housing, heating fuel, food and nutrition, early childhood development, and affordable clothing and household needs.
This year, said SEVCA Executive Director Steve Geller, “we’re having a more open event, revolving around the community, not just us.”
On May 25, attendees at SEVCA’s “Community In Action” event filed into the Fraternal Order of Eagles banquet room to gather information from representatives from 20 social service organizations, listen to seven guest speakers, watch a documentary film, and eat dinner — for free.
For the first hour of “Community Action,” attendees had the chance to visit the tables of local, state-wide, and national groups, such as Youth Services, Physicians for a National Health Program, and the Women’s Freedom Center.
Next to the registration booth, SEVCA staff greeted guests with information about their services, with most of the literature addressing how to make one’s voice heard.
Housing Manager Susan Howes said her clients, who are mostly low-income people, often “feel un-represented,” and to “get [them] vocal and engaged,” she and her colleagues were registering people to vote, and handed out printed lists of local town clerks and their contact information.
Call to action
For Twitter users, SEVCA offered a call to action. Next to the table was a giant notepad on a large easel displayed the hashtag “hands off,” asking guests to spread the word about the Trump administration’s proposed budget.
“To pay for tax cuts for millionaires, Trump budget cuts Medicaid, health care, disability programs, housing programs, fuel assistance, [and] non-defense spending,” the sign said, “How will it affect you?"
In the second hour, Geller welcomed attendees with a short opening speech, then screened the 2016 documentary A Hug From Paul Ryan.
The film, directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, follows Tianna Gaines-Turner, a low-income, working mother who testified at the 2014 House Budget Committee on how poverty affects her, her husband, and their children.
The film showed part of Gaines-Turner’s testimony, and what happened right after, in the hallway: She met Ryan, then chair of the committee. When Ryan tried shaking her hand, Gaines-Turner instead insisted on a hug.
“I wanted him to see me as a person,” she said in the film, adding, “now it’s personal — I know him, he knows me,” and she hoped he would remember this when deciding whether to cut funding for assistance to low-income people like her.
After the film, three legislative aides working for Vermont’s Congressional delegation spoke.
Kate Ash, from Sen. Patrick Leahy’s staff, told attendees the tone in the senator’s office is optimistic, “despite the challenges of being the minority in Congress right now.”
“Vermont is a leader and we have a truly unique position and we take the lead in treating people well,” Ash said. This “happens because of advocacy and leadership,” Ash noted.
Other speakers included State Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham; MaryLou Beaver, a director with Every Child Matters, a children, youth, and families advocacy group; Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, which works to make workplaces, school districts, and communities more inclusive; and Matt Wright of the Vermont-based national government-access grassroots group Indivisible.
Balint: Stay curious, courageous
Balint opened her speech with a story about her first session in the Senate, when a resident came in to talk to a committee about how “drug addiction had destroyed her life,” and “told us in stark, heartbreaking details how difficult it had been for her to get her life back on track.”
“I leaned in to listen,” Balint said, but noticed, “I was the only person making eye contact. Nobody else was actually looking at the witness.” They were shuffling papers, looking at their cellphones, or talking with others.
She acknowledged the Legislature’s work is short on time and long on tasks, but “we cannot leave the heart out of the work."
Balint briefly traced the arc of assistance for poor people since the last century, and focused on the concept of “agency” in serving their needs.
Once, poor people’s needs were determined and addressed by those at the top of “long-established power structures,” Balint said.
Beginning with President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and the establishment of community action agencies under the federal Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, “the poor were to be integrally involved” in deciding “how federal funds would be spent on them and in their communities,” Balint said.
But, she noted, that concept of community action agencies has “eroded steadily” since the Reagan administration, with his, both Bushes’, and Clinton’s presidencies cutting funding for poor and minority Americans.
And it’s happening again.
“And much to the frustration and disappointment of, I’m sure, many of you in this room, the people you serve have far less input, far less agency than they once had,” Balint said.
“So how do we all not succumb to despair? How do we make meaning in the Trumpian era?” she asked.
Balint directed those present to remain curious and courageous, seek out those doing good work and champion their efforts to others, and keep an open heart.
“If we stand firmly on the side of curiosity and possibility, we not only serve our communities better, we also model a different way forward,” Balint said.
Expanding and collaborating
Geller said “concerns of risks to sustaining critical services to at-risk people, [including] elderly, low-income, and homeless people,” were behind this year’s expanded event.
In a series of conversations among SEVCA staff, Geller said the same message kept coming up: the fear of losing funding.
“We weren’t just sitting around complaining, we said, ‘let’s see what we can do with it,’” Geller said.
“There’s a value shift in the new administration,” Geller said, which wants to create a system where “people with virtually nothing end up with even less to fund tax cuts to the wealthy.”
“The Republican Congress doesn’t seem to understand [the repercussions] when they cut programs that keep people fed and alive, and that’s where we come in,” Geller said.
Inspired by the women’s march, and the Windham County Action Network “Spring Into Action” fair, Geller said SEVCA staff saw more opportunities for collaboration and synergy.
They reached out to the Action Network and Indivisible, two local grassroots social justice groups, to work together on “Community in Action,” Geller said.
“We can’t do this alone,” said Geller, and with a shared set of values, and by building “coalitions around particular issues ... we can do even more work collectively."
“This is the ideal way to serve the community right now,” Geller said.