By Anna King, Hendrix 2017
When I scrolled through the list of Shepherd internships, Vermont Works for Women (VWW) stood out to me. Their mission to help women become economically independent resonated with me as an organization that seemed successful, welcoming, and inspiring. I was thrilled to learn that I would be spending my summer interning with them.Founded in 1986, VWW has two divisions: women’s programs and girls’ programs. They also advocate for social change on a broader scale.
“Too many seemed unwilling to exit this comfy place where they saw themselves as the righteous ones,” writes Anna King (Hendrix 2017). Pictured here with VWW Shepherd intern Jen Koide (Middlebury 2017), at a non-profit fair in Montpelier.
As one of two Shepherd interns in the girls’ programs office, I focused on preparing and then working with Rosie’s Girls, a camp named after Rosie the Riveter. Rosie’s Girls is a three week camp which exposes middle school girls to non-traditional trades and fields that have steady employment, solid pay, and are underrepresented by women, for example, carpentry, welding, and engineering. The larger goal of the camp is to foster the development of self-confidence and empowerment that will last a lifetime, as shown in the campers through the feedback by their parents and guardians. Watching the campers use power tools, drive a skid-steer, or understand the mechanics of a robotic arm was a rewarding experience. These activities seemed to trigger the thought: “If I can do these things, what else can I do?”
Before I begin the rest of this essay, I would like to applaud and praise the work of Vermont Works for Women. Their success is not just girls programming, but in teaching women various trades and work-readiness skills and has no doubt changed many lives over the last 30 years. I admire their work and believe that it is very important to helping women who face poverty. I will always be grateful for the opportunity they provided for me.
I lived in Burlington, Vermont, home of the University of Vermont and Bernie Sanders. Downtown is full of cool shops from clothing, to outdoor sports, to restaurants that serve only local food. There’s even a co-operative market, instead of a grocery store, and a bustling farmer’s market every Saturday. The place feels liberal and progressive. The employees at Vermont Works for Women have the same vibe that Burlington does. No one dresses too formally, many ride their bikes to work, and they are active in the community on the weekends. While I began to notice that Vermont was not racially diverse, there exists an open-mindedness and a progressiveness that I assumed would make up for the fact that, as I put it to my friends, I couldn’t even hear Drake on the radio. As an additional note, all the employees at Vermont Works for women were cisgender women, but there was only one woman of color. Almost all of them were straight. Most of them had received great college educations and defined themselves as middle-class.
During the first of two staff meetings I attended, the diversity committee at VWW had invited a speaker from a local community center that provides resources for LGBTQ Vermonters and advocates for pressing issues that queer folks face. The speaker made several suggestions about how to make VWW a safe place. She began by mentioning that one could sign emails with their pronouns or write their pronouns on name tags. She described this as something simple that can be done in order to create a space for folks to openly define themselves, rather than letting assumptions take place. Another easy thing to do is display “safe space” signs to make others feel more welcome and comfortable. I was excited about all of this, but I understood that as a college student interested in these topics that I would probably be more aware of current discussions around acts of inclusivity. As the meeting and discussion continued, I felt a sense of reluctance growing in the room. I sensed the topic looming, and it was raw and uncomfortable. Many did not want to embrace the fact that they were ignorant about these issues despite the rising visibility of queer issues in current culture and more importantly, their relevance to better serving their folks at VWW.
The pinnacle of the meeting occurred as we discussed including more gender options on VWW forms. An employee raised her hand. After first being unable to say “LGBTQ” or a suitable alternative, she insisted that offering additional gender options on the forms would confuse those filling them out and cause them to be uninterested in VWW’s services. I could not believe she had said that. Adding more gender options on forms would allow VWW to serve more folks and allow others to feel more welcome. While it may have seemed that the employee said this out of concern for VWW, her comment did not consider the folks who are actually placed this in position. Her statement showed that she did not attempt to understand the position of these folks because she was unfamiliar with other genders besides male and female. It felt too strange, awkward, and scary for her. My supervisor’s supervisor answered her explaining that over time it would actually allow them to help more people of different genders. The original comment insisted on keeping the familiar and present structures still in place, rather than acknowledging that change needed to happen at VWW. I was appalled that no one else was appalled. Arguments like this are easily bought by people who do not want changes to happen.
In the next meeting, the same supervisor who had spoken up at the last meeting attempted to lead a Rosie’s Girls time honored tradition for the staff members. On one sheet of paper, the campers would write down the expectations and rules they want to have at camp like “be opened-minded” or “be a good friend.” It’s an activity in which the discussion is more important than the result and leaves everyone feeling good and on the same page. The supervisor wanted to use this activity for the “adults” to create a list of expectations for discussions that centered on “power, privilege, and identity.” The reluctance to talk about a difficult, yet important subject which had persisted at the last meeting readily emerged in the room. Not only were power and privilege words that were “too harsh,” according to several people, but “being held accountable” for micro-aggressions was “too harsh” as well. Many of the women expressed that they weren’t interested in being corrected about unknowingly offending someone in an everyday conversation. As the discussion transitioned, many balked at the idea of doing extra work outside of work such as reading articles and doing a little Google research about diversity awareness and steps for better inclusion. According them, it did not seem relevant to their daily lives. Unfortunately, it became apparent that understanding power dynamics and diversity differences of those who were not fellow VWW employees was not a priority. I felt disappointed and defeated when I left the meeting, and these feelings remained when I left Vermont.
I want to stress that not everyone at VWW was unwilling to understand the concepts and broaden their thinking. Some seemed to have their wheels turning and were working towards a better grasp. A couple of employees said nothing during either meeting, and I wondered what their thoughts were. Still, too many seemed unwilling to exit this comfy place where they saw themselves as the righteous ones, where they were good people because they worked for a great non-profit. It was as if they were trapped in a bubble. It was then that I began to realize that the bubble of VWW was the same bubble that encompassed Burlington. Burlington had passed itself off as cool and local and a great place to live. But just like VWW, it is unequipped to deal with people who are different and are unable to fly under the radar in what appears to be a homogenous community. The expensive co-op market (and lack of a grocery store), fancy clothing stores, and nice restaurants meant that the city wasn’t affordable for everyone, including us interns in Vermont. Burlington was open-minded, but exclusive. It was progressive, but lacked the proof of unifying a diverse group of people. This does not mean that they weren’t people of color or low-income households in Vermont. It just meant the numbers were low and they lacked visibility in the Lake Champlain area.
The point of this essay is not that the employees of VWW did not know the latest terminology or were unaware of current issues centering on prejudice and discrimination. What I want to shed light on is that many employees carry privilege that remains unchecked. I had never been to a place like this before because I had never been in an environment so liberal and so righteous where people are so unaware of their status. What made this experience frustrating was the lack of reflection and consideration on the part of many employees. It is almost as if they never looked inward to understand where they fit in a world full of various identities, backgrounds, and stories. I don’t want to shake my finger at VWW for not being “on point.” I just want to show how shocking these interactions were for me. I want others to understand that helping folks does not give someone a free pass to ignore issues that make them feel uncomfortable, question their opinions, and consider what type of person they think they are. As I sat in those staff meetings as a queer woman of color, I felt isolated and uncomfortable. I felt like I did not belong. I can only imagine how those with other marginalized identities felt as they sought the services of VWW. I could have written this essay about many different aspects of this summer, but I choice to write about this because I think it was the most important thing I learned. Vermont Works for Women and other non-profits need to be held accountable for diversity and for their inclusiveness.