ATHENS—Coming from a strong background of community growing and support, Wichie Artu sees his decision to seek one of the Democratic nominations for Windham County’s two Senate seats as “another way I can see myself empowering folks on the ground.”
He will be contending with Nader Hashim in the primary. Tim Wessel of Brattleboro is running as an independent.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeanette White of Putney has not yet announced her decision about seeking re-election.
Artu, who has a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Northeastern University, lives in Athens with his husband, Isaac “Ike” Leslie, a food system sociologist.
Together, Artu and Leslie own Magnetic Fields Farm, a four-acre farm whose mission is “to attract and sustain the queer/BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farming community through affordable housing, affordable land leasing, and culturally important food production.”
A data engineer with Home Base, a charitable program of the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, Artu is also second vice president of the Windham County branch of the NAACP.
There, he co-chairs the Health Justice Committee, collaborating with health-care professionals, state health officials, local community leaders, and policy consultants “to develop results-based approaches to health access in our county.”
He has served as a community representative on Vermont’s Racial Equity Task Force, where his top priorities were two recommendations to Gov. Phil Scott: “declaring racism a public health emergency to help eradicate systemic inequities, and providing undocumented folks stipends for Covid relief (they were not permitted federal stipends).”
Artu has served as a data expert on the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems Advisory Panel, a group organized within the state attorney general’s office under a law passed in 2017 and charged with issuing a report every other year on systemic implicit bias in the state’s criminal and juvenile justice system. The candidate has worked “to build a criminal justice data repository to ethically analyze and systematically reduce” such disparities, he said.
Community-minded from the start
Artu’s sense of community has been key since his childhood in Puerto Rico, where he was raised in a “non-traditional” family of an indigenous father, two mothers, and a younger sister.
“We were poor and relied on government assistance to survive,” says the candidate, explaining what shared support means to a family.
“We faced many barriers to opportunity, but along the way, community stepped in and removed these barriers,” Artu says. “As a kid, when my mothers lost their jobs due to their factories moving overseas, my grandmother gave us a place to live.”
Through Boston’s bilingual school program, Artu says he learned to read, write, and speak English. A busing desegregation program “gave me the privilege of a suburban education,” he says.
As a teen, a local nonprofit employed Artu as a youth community artist, teaching his Latin-Caribbean community about its Nigerian (Yoruba), indigenous (Taíno), and European roots.
“This organization paired me with a gay, successful lawyer as a mentor, who taught me how to apply for college and financial aid,” Artu says. “My mentor was the first representation of gayness I saw that made me realize that being gay didn’t mean I would end up beaten to death like Matthew Shepard or die of AIDS like my uncles.”
As a young adult, Artu joined an artist collective that “built community, pushed for social change, and improved public health through dance, music, and youth engagement.”
“Today, I thrive because my community gave me the tools to realize my potential and to plan for my future,” Artu says.
Coming to Vermont
Leslie is from Shaftsbury, and Artu says the pair had been visiting and “gravitating toward” Vermont from the Boston area for some time before moving to Athens.
“As adults, my husband and I experienced housing insecurity and moved to southeastern Vermont, where our family took us in,” he says.
At first, Artu and his husband lived in a tiny house and then homesteaded on his brother-in-law’s land.
“I have since been lovingly accepted as part of the Athens community,” he says.
“I’ve been a community builder since I was 14,” says Artu. “I’m ready to grow old here. It’s good to feel like I have a home — quite a unique feeling I haven’t found anywhere else. I live in the right place. I love where I live.”
Having a stable home is important to Artu, who, from the ages of 17 to 25, “was kind of nomadic,” living on $500 per month in Boston as a performing artist and sleeping wherever he could.
Artu says he finds farming hard work but also fun.
“The idea of the farm is to create cultural and other resources to foster the farming community,” he says.
Artu is clearly pleased that he has been able to organically grow the ingredients to make homemade sofrito, an aromatic combination of sautéed garlic, peppers, onions, and tomatoes often used as a base for stews, rice and beans, and meat dishes.
One of those ingredients is recao, a type of coriander that grows in the Caribbean and Vietnam.
“It makes a difference for several other Puerto Rican families and others in the area who wouldn’t have access to sofrito,” he says.
Why take on more?
In addition to his many job and avocation hats, Artu has multiple hobbies.
“I’m a restless person,” he says with a megawatt smile that seems his usual visage.
He enjoys dancing and karaoke. “I love assuming the character and making people laugh and be happy,” he says.
He also knits, sews, does cross-stitch, and loves board and video games and sports — his being gymnastics, of which he says, “fear is only a barrier.”
“Acknowledge and push past it, and that’s when things will happen,” he says, noting the metaphor for so much in life.
What motivated Artu to run for the Senate seat?
“We deserve a system that, instead of putting up barriers, removes them,” he says. “I want to give what community has given to me: opportunity.”
Among the issues dear to Artu are “a home for every Vermonter,” “the right to exist,” child and elder care, and “health as a public service.”
Addressing the housing crisis, Artu says Vermonters “need homes that fit our particular needs, whether related to physical ability, social ideals, economic opportunity, etc.”
“For example, my husband and I are converting our farmhouse into a housing co-op to help other farmers build equity in rural Vermont,” he says, adding that he supports legislative bill H. 232, which proposes to promote land and home ownership, climate resilience, and economic opportunity for historically marginalized Vermonters, including folks in poverty.
Artu talks about the “right to exist” as related to climate, food, and water.
“We cannot survive without food or water. Let’s remove barriers to drinking clean water and eating healthy foods. During Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s waters were polluted, food supply chains broke down, and homes were destroyed — including my family home,” he says.
“Family and friends would tell me stories of the three-hour lines just to get two bags of ice so their milk and insulin did not spoil. As a Vermont farmer, I’ve seen the effects of extreme weather patterns on our soils, waterways, and community. Let’s do something about it.
“For example, I am part of our town’s Weather Emergency Committee where we have a protocol to shelter, feed, and provide for our neighbors and their pets in cases of weather emergencies like [Tropical Storm] Irene. I support S. 258, which proposes a study to improve the required agricultural practices and make them more climate resilient.”
Artu also believes that child care and elder care should be “accessible, affordable, and valued, both for participants and for caretakers.”
He wants to remove barriers to care “for our most vulnerable.”
To that end, he and Leslie are building an in-law apartment in their home, compliant with the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so their parents and others they care about “have an accessible home close to family when they near the end of their lives.”
Artu also supports the 2021 recommendations from the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council that include mental health support, community engagement, a focus on social-emotional development, affordability, staff support, and data-driven outcomes.
When it comes to health care, Artu says, “Our health is not for sale.”
“Let’s remove barriers to accessing health care and a healthy life. We need to prioritize the health of our public, not the profit of private companies,” he says.
During the pandemic, he partnered with the Vermont Department of Health to “coordinate with over 30 community organizations to offer free and easy-to-access BIPOC vaccine clinics in southern Vermont, especially for those unhoused, LGBTQ+, and/or specific health needs.”
He adds that he supports H. 276, “which proposes to expand Green Mountain Care into a publicly financed health care program for all Vermont residents.”
Another big reason for Artu’s candidacy, he says, is also part of the challenge of potentially serving as Senator: the pay.
“We talk about a ‘citizen legislature,’ but it’s not,” he says. “What we have is an oligarchy.”
The Legislature is in session full-time from January to late spring, depending on the issues at hand, a schedule that would test even the most patient of employers. Legislators are paid a weekly rate plus mileage.
According to public data from the state Department of Human Resources, Windham County’s senior senator, White, earns $773.76 per week. The other Windham senator, Becca Balint, earns $856.48 per week, a higher rate because of her role as president pro tempore.
“I think the biggest struggle is senators only make about $13,000 a year, so the question is how would I survive?” he says.
He noted that he is already involved in a great deal of political activism, but to serve he would have to give up his full-time job and shift to contract work, building systems for small-scale farming.
“When you have a salary of $13,000, there are only certain people who can do that. People are even struggling on $40,000 a year. I really want to push our Legislature on this and do something about it. It needs to be more accessible.”
“There’s a reason you don’t see people like me on it,” he says.
Artu also realizes that serving in the Legislature will require a learning curve, but says that his history of organizing and processing information for community activism makes him confident that he will “learn and be effective.”
“During the pandemic, folks rose to the occasion to help provide for the community,” he says. “How can I use political power where we’re funding these resources and remove the barriers for these community initiatives to be empowered?”
“Sometimes, it’s eliminating bureaucracy,” he observes. “Coming from this place of having done this work and run programs and organized stuff, how can I use my bridge-building skills to make it easier for [people in the community]?”
Artu believes his success has come “because I was given stability by other folks” — and that’s what he wants to impart to others.
“You can’t think about thriving when you’re worried about surviving,” he says, noting his desire to “give people tools and services that meet basic needs and create a sustainable system that feeds itself.”
Meeting people where they are and being open is important to Artu.
“There’s this big political divide we’re seeing right now and I definitely hold certain values, and I’m going to be put into a very specific kind of box,” he says. “I want folks to know that even if we disagree on approaches, I think in general people want the same things I do.”
“I feel it’s extremely valuable to understand where people are coming from and where they are and why, and that needs to be part of informed policy,” he adds. “I want people to reach out to me.”
“At the end of the day, my job is to listen,” Artu says.