By Ali Dieng
Editor’s note: Ali Dieng is the founder of the Burlington School District Parent University and co-founder of the Vermont New American Advisory Council. He is the first African immigrant elected to the Burlington City Council. This commentary caps a 10-part series in which the authors respond to pressing topics identified in a “Proposition for the Future of Vermont” developed by the nonpartisan Vermont Council on Rural Development, futureofvermont.org.
Part 10: Together, Vermonters must renew civic engagement, strengthen trust, civility and democratic decision-making, and empower young Vermonters.
In Vermont, a large proportion of the local “New American” population is made up of individuals who were resettled to the state with refugee status. Refugee resettlement in Chittenden County began in the early 1980s and it is now the most ethnically diverse county in the state.
Despite these significant, ongoing demographic changes, opportunities for civic engagement remain vastly inaccessible for New Americans in the area. Prohibitive policies and practices around language access, along with a lack of educational and informational resources and platforms to draw New Americans into the democratic process, have led to the mass disenfranchisement of New Americans living in Vermont.
There is a critical need for New Americans who are living, working, and raising their children in Vermont to be civically engaged and have a say in the public sphere of the country and communities they rightfully call home.
As an aging state, with almost one-third of the population over age 60, it is imperative to strengthen the sense of belonging and engagement of all Vermonters across the lifespan. Especially important is to engage young Vermonters — our most ethnically diverse demographic — in our decision-making processes so that they are involved early and see Vermont as a place where they are welcomed and valued.
Vermont’s accomplishments in terms of making democratic participation easier and more accessible for all is inspiring. Vermonters adapted meaningfully and provided a strong, coordinated approach to beat Covid-19. The pandemic highlighted the gaps in our system, but we must recognize and appreciate the tangible action steps that our state’s leaders have taken to secure meaningful participation. The universal mail-in ballot legislation is a primary example.
The public health emergency has also highlighted other gaps in our evolving system of governance. In Chittenden County, we have witnessed many local organizations come together in filling language gaps. Collectively, they are providing critical information about fighting the virus to New American communities and making that information accessible via oral interpretation, translated outreach videos and written translation.
The issue here is that Vermont should not consider the needs of New Americans as an afterthought. The need for accessible information, culturally appropriate materials, and intentional outreach to increase engagement must be at the forefront of our efforts. We want New Americans of all ages to be empowered to bring their voices and their lived experiences to the key conversations we are having about the future of Vermont and the decisions being made at the local level that impact all our lives.
We can and must do better. Doing so requires both focus and investment. The city of Burlington has taken some key steps. It has established a language access plan. The Burlington School District has established a family and community engagement program to empower families as equal partners in their children’s education. Young people have demonstrated their own power in Burlington when in the summer of 2020 they outlined demands for public safety in the city.
Let us invite young Vermonters from all backgrounds and cultures to sit on boards and commissions in every system of governance in our state. Their ideas and energy are needed and it supports their learning as well. They might not need a stipend for service, but after successful completion of their service term, they could access college credit or a scholarship. The state is better off when youth are involved in the decision-making processes that shape their future and the future of our state.
Vermonters have a long tradition of seeking input and debating issues. We are all experiencing a different level of community conversation with the rise of social media platforms. While social media can be beneficial to share critical information in an easily accessible way, it also brings rise to a different set of issues such as harassment, lack of civility and sometimes toxic engagement.
We must be mindful of the impacts that negative engagement could have on the health of our democracy. We also must be mindful that the next generation is paying attention to the precedent we set. Let us call for civility in all our discussion and debate. The more that elected leaders can remind their constituency that, while we disagree, we should stay civil, we can strengthen trust and lead by example for the future of Vermont.
This is the responsibility of all Vermonters — to not bring negativity to our discourse but rather to make sure that all voices are being heard and respected. This is meaningful participation in our democracy.
Despite our political affiliations or our disagreement around prioritizing issues, Vermont’s elected officials are accessible to their constituents. Being responsive and accessible to the constituency should be celebrated. It is part of human nature to have completely different viewpoints on issues, but we are also required for the health of our democracy to see in each other a common humanity, a shared dignity and love of our state. I am confident that, if we can do these things, we can make a great future for Vermont and the diversity of Vermonters.