April 18: A Day for "Dignity, Not Poverty" and Paid Sick Days

“Dignity not poverty” Human Rights Hearing and Vigil

People from all across Vermont came together in solidarity to put people first on Thursday for a “Dignity, Not Poverty” Human Rights Hearing at the Montpelier Christ Church. During the hearing we heard many stories of personal struggle and inspiring voices in support of one another in economic times such as these in Vermont. 

Meghan Achilles with childrenWe heard from two courageous and inspirational single mothers, Megan Achilles of St. Johnsbury and Amanda Shepherd of Middlebury. They each eloquently told of their struggle to meet their and their children's fundamental needs given their current unstable working situations and non-livable wages. They told of how social programs such as Reach Up have aided in times where their labor hasn’t provided enough.

One panelist, Dinah Yessne of  St. Johnsbury, expressed with great emotion: “You are our heroes… It is such a hard job to raise children and it is so much harder to raise children in poverty.” Another member of the listening panel, Auburn Watersong of Christ Church and the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, spoke words that resonated in the room: “I want you to know that you are not alone. You are not alone.”

Reverend Earl Kooperkamp of Barre's Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, reminded us all of the magnitude of the interconnected issues we face. He addressed the room and said, “Know that we are trying to save these programs and we must also acknowledge that these programs themselves fall short.” 

It is through the sharing of our stories that we can empower ourselves to demand change. Following the hearing we united in song, marching and singing in unbreakable strength from the church down State Street to the green of the Vermont capital. We held handmade human rights signs, wore red “Put People First” shirts and pins, and sang courageously: 

Collage of the marchAin’t gonna let nobody turn us ‘round,
Turn us round, turn us ‘round.
Ain’t gonna let nobody, turn us ‘round.
We’re gonna keep on walkin,’ keep on talkin,’
Marching for our human rights!

As we descended down State Street we changed the word “nobody” to other words that expressed our broad themes of struggle, such as “poverty,” “budget cuts,” “discrimination,” “Governor Shumlin.” As we reached the steps we continued to carry one another in song and formed a circle in front of the state house – the People’s House – to prepare for our human rights vigil. We held bolts of blue fabric rolled out in a star formation, where people held the ends of the fabric tightly, forming an unbreakable bond of strength and unity, indestructible even by the strength of the wind. Again we heard words of pain and struggle, yet we were still filled with insurmountable hope and love. Reverend Kooperkamp reminded us of the devastating tragedy in Boston, while also reminding us of the endemic harm that poverty ensues every second of every day. We need a state budget that doesn’t pit us against one another, where budget caps are placed on the most vulnerable among us in our communities.

Paid Sick Days Now! Public Hearing in the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs

A packed room at the paid sick days hearingAfter the vigil, we entered the State House to testify and support one another in a hearing for paid sick day legislation. A variety of people from all sectors of labor told their very personal stories that symbolized the essential need for paid sick days in Vermont. Such legislation has been taken on across the country and all over the world. People stated with great assurance that now is the time for Vermont to do the same.

Wes Hamilton, an owner of multiple restaurants in central Vermont, voiced his support for the bill, stating that mandatory legislation would not penalize employers for “doing the right thing.” Regardless of the benefit to the health of the worker, many testified saying that the bill would also benefit the health of fellow employees, the employer, and the wellbeing of the community at large. As Wes says, “They [sick workers] don’t want to be there. You don’t want them to be there.” The varying stories remind us all of the importance of a safety net, to prevent us all from potentially spiraling into financial crisis, where being sick does not require us to choose between our health and other fundamental needs or to choose our job over a family member who is sick and needs help. Geraldine Burke, a member of the Vermont Workers' Center Rutland organizing committee, got at the heart of the issue when she said, “We must decide if the pocketbooks of employers are more important than the health of fellow Vermonters.”

The author, Brittany Nevins, at the blogThe Human Rights Hearing, Vigil, and the Paid Sick Days Now! Hearing all caused me to reflect personally upon times in my life when I have not been able to get through a struggle on my own and have needed support from those around me. In times like these, when we feel helpless and have lost our self-worth, we must remember that we are not alone and that we must all come together in solidarity to demand that we are treated humanely and with dignity. We need a state that puts people first!