Several weeks ago I attended a meeting in Montpelier, capital of Vermont, in which that city's Mayor, Mary Hooper, and Vermont State Representative, Patricia McDonald (R-Berlin) outlined detailed preparations being made by concerned citizens in Montpelier and Berlin to assist the most vulnerable folks in their towns with surviving the cold winter. While this kind of effort may be popular at the neighborhood, city, or town level across America, it is rare that a state representative signs on to it as passionately as McDonald has.
I chose to conduct an interview with McDonald and now publish it far and wide because as the various levels of American society continue to collapse in the wake of economic meltdown, most of the services to which people in need might turn in an emergency will not be there. It is very likely that the only lifeline for millions of people may be with caring neighbors or other community volunteers.
My hope is that featuring Patricia McDonald's vision on the Truth To Power website and circulating this interview may inspire other legislators and citizens in the United States to implement similar programs to monitor the most vulnerable in their communities as individuals and families attempt to navigate unemployment, foreclosure, hunger, lack of heat, illness, and a host of daunting challenges that are now rampant in many parts of the nation.
I sat down in the Statehouse cafeteria with Patricia McDonald, newly re-elected to the Vermont legislature, and who has been very generous with her time, and I asked her some specific questions about neighbors helping neighbors.
CB: So Representative McDonald, before I ask you to explain these initiatives to Truth To Power readers, I'd like to know more about how you became interested in this particular issue since you've been a Vermont State Representative and have worked in state government for a number of years. Why this issue of neighbors helping neighbors among so many others?
PM: I have only recently served in the legislature, but I have served seven appointed positions in state government. When I campaigned the first time, I went door to door and was pretty surprised by what I saw and the discussions I had with people about these struggles. You certainly can't tell by the house that someone is living in what their situation actually is. I also had two very interesting experiences while I was campaigning. One was attending a hunger banquet, and it was such a visual display of what poor and middle class really is. They separate you into these three different economic status groups, and even though we knew we were kind of "play-acting" our status, we still really lived as if we were in those groups. The "upper class" didn't talk to the "middle class", and the "middle class" didn't talk to the "poor class", and the dynamics between the "poor class" were very similar apparently, to what happens in real life. What really got to me was the quantity of food that we were talking about.
And then I've had someone in my own family who ran into a real problem, and was caught up in a layoff. They owned a home but had no money. They, of course, had our support, and others in the family, but it was amazing to me what we expect people to live on and what we think is "making too much money" to qualify for some of these programs.
I've always been involved in the municipal end of government because I've been on the Select Board of my town, but once I started knocking on doors and being involved in real life situations, my eyes were opened. And also, just before I left state government, I was the Commissioner of Labor, looking at some of the programs for trying to get people trained and stable enough to train in terms of housing, daycare, and transportation. It's been a couple of years of eye-opening experiences for me, very humbling actually, which gave me a very different perspective on life.
CB: Can you explain to our readers what a Select Board is?
PM: It's really the governing body of a municipal town or city. Most cities have councils. In our town [and mostly throughout Vermont] it's a Select Board.
CB: I'm registered in Vermont as an Independent, but you are a Republican, and stereotypically, Republicans don't focus this much on issues like neighbors helping neighbors, so I was curious about what drew you into all this.
PM: I just think experience. I think many Republicans approach these problems a little bit differently than Democrats do. I don't think it's that we're not interested, but that we have a different solution. We would look to the employer to create jobs, and so on, but you have to have folks ready to even take that step.
CB: OK, so having clarified that, please explain some of the most important aspects of the food, fuel, and transportation details of preparing for this winter in your community in Vermont.
PM: What we're trying to do is first of all, get the word out to make sure people know what services are available. These efforts are happening on the state, regional, and town levels, but we want to make sure people know that help is there. I think we're looking at a different group than we've normally served in the past-a group that hasn't had to deal with these struggles before. They're going to be making some very tough choices probably for the first time. They've been hanging on just barely. Some have just recently lost their jobs, some are widows or widowers, and things are more expensive now. They've been hanging on with their incomes, and now they're having to make different decisions than they've made before, and we're very concerned about them because they don't know who to ask, and they don't want to ask. In New England we're a stubborn lot, and we want to be self-reliant.
We want people to know that they're not alone, and that it's OK to ask for help. What we've done in my town of Berlin is to say, "Well, if we can help you in terms of food, fuel, or transportation, perhaps in turn, you can help us by being part of the process." It's more of a barter/trade process. Maybe if you've got transportation, you can transport someone else to go get food or medication. In Berlin, we want to make sure that we have a team in place, so that when we do have an issue, we can respond accordingly.