Raising each other up

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Redmond appointed to Vt. Commission on Women

Marybeth Redmond of Essex will serve on the Vermont Commission on Women. (Photo by Abby Ledoux)

What do President John F. Kennedy and Essex resident Marybeth Christie Redmond have in common?

A commitment to raising up women: Following her appointment to the Vermont Commission on Women, Redmond will spend the next four years on the non-partisan state agency devoted to advancing opportunities for women and girls. The group was borne out of Kennedy’s 1961 edict to governors to create such a taskforce to examine and improve the status of women in a rapidly changing America.

Vermont Gov. Philip Hoff heeded that call, establishing the VCW by executive order in 1964; the first commission saw such esteemed members as the state’s future female governor, Madeleine Kunin.

It’s worth noting Kunin remains the only female governor this state has seen. And that only 11 of Vermont’s 296 statewide officers elected since 1778 have been women. And, with Mississippi, Vermont is one of just two states that have never sent a woman to Congress.

Today, Vermont is ranked 33rd in the nation for women’s parity in political representation – a far cry from its spot at No. 7 in 1993.

These statistics, which come from Change the Story VT, a multi-year research initiative backed by VCW, are figures commissioners hope to reverse.

Redmond and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s second appointment, Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro, join 14 other commissioners statewide on today’s VCW, each serving staggered four-year terms.

Appointed across the geographical and political spectrum by the governor, speaker, Senate Committee on Committees, Vermont Democratic Party and Vermont Republican Party, the 16 commissioners meet several times a month from September to June in Montpelier. Their duties range from spearheading taskforces to informing policy: VCW was a key player in recent legislation requiring employers make accommodations for pregnant workers.

VCW says eligible commissioners must display a commitment to reducing discrimination and increase opportunities for women in Vermont, a requisite Redmond has fulfilled throughout her career.

A Long Island native, Redmond moved here 14 years ago when her husband, Mark Redmond, was offered the executive directorship of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, a position he still holds. They settled in Essex Center with their infant son, who enters Essex High School this fall.

Since then, Redmond’s work has centered on amplifying the voices of underserved communities, including incarcerated and economically disadvantaged women. In 2010, she co-founded a writing program in the women’s prison called “Writing Inside VT,” which resulted in the 2013 national publication of “Hear Me, See Me,” a book of poetry and prose by incarcerated women.

Redmond ran that program, which a colleague continues today, for five years before leaving for Vermont Works for Women. For three years, she headed up that Winooski nonprofit’s marketing and development, generating messaging and funding for programs to train unemployed and underemployed women.

Today, she works as a partner with Vermont Story Lab, which trains nonprofit communicators to bolster outreach with storytelling, an art Redmond mastered in her former career as a television reporter in New York, Connecticut and Indiana. From 2003 to 2009, she taught journalism at St. Michael’s College.

All that’s to say Redmond is an authority on effective communication, expertise she’s eager to bring to the commission.

“I intend to be their enthusiastic cheerleader out in the community,” Redmond said. “I really see myself as an ambassador, someone who can really help amplify what they’re doing and be a voice in terms of what I see in my community are the massive challenges that women and girls face.”

Those challenges run the gamut and are geographically striated, Redmond said.

“Vermont has particular challenges in that we are predominately a rural state. We forget that sometimes, living in Chittenden County,” she said. “But most of the women and girls who are affected by poverty and marginalization are living in rural communities in Vermont.”

There, women face different hardships than their counterparts with greater community resources, including transportation, affordable housing, quality childcare and access to livable wage work.

Multi-generational poverty is also systemic in rural areas, a fact Redmond encountered repeatedly in the women’s prison system, where two-thirds of incarcerated women hail from rural Vermont and another third are from Chittenden County.

Inside the prison, Redmond saw women struggle with childcare. She estimated 75 percent of her clients with were mothers whose custody was transferred to others during their incarceration.

Redmond also saw prisoners released into a system seemingly stacked against them: Now marked with a felony record, former inmates struggled to reenter the workforce, a challenge closely married to attaining decent, affordable housing and transportation for the children to whom they returned.

Add to that the opioid crisis, an epidemic raging in Vermont and beyond. Many of the women Redmond worked with knew, or even were, recovering addicts.

“There are just massive challenges to really moving your life forward,” Redmond said. “So how can we as commissioners address some of these issues, grease the wheels so that employment can be easier to obtain, childcare can be easier to obtain? All of these things are really priorities.”

Sipping tea on the couch of an Essex Jct. coffee shop last week, Redmond was thoughtful when considering the plight of women in Vermont, a state often hailed as a progressive bastion in the fight for equal rights.

But Redmond knows, by scratching the surface, a less than perfect image is revealed for many women here, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Women are more likely than men to live in poverty or face financial insecurity, according to Change the Story VT, which also reported 43 percent of Vermont women who work full-time don’t make enough to cover basic living expenses as defined by the state’s Joint Fiscal Office.

Those women are also disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs: Half of full-time, female workers are in fields with a median annual salary below $35,000. Fifty-seven percent of women have incomes below $30,000; the same percentage of men earns income above that rate.

Women who worked full-time year-round earned 84 cents to the dollar compared to their male counterparts, and the gender wage gap is projected to last 31 more years in Vermont, not disappearing until 2048, data indicates.

Families headed by single women are more likely to face poverty, too: At 37.5 percent, the poverty rate for those families is nine times that of married couples.

These are realities Redmond confronted in her prior work with women living on the margins. But it’s the personal relationships she’s formed that will inform her next four years on the commission more than anything, she said.

Those relationships exist with low-income, unemployed women, former inmates and a New American family now settled in Essex after a single mother fled a Kenyan refugee camp, five young children in tow, bound for an unfamiliar, largely homogenous community across the globe.

“Those issues are really in my face all the time, and so that really strengthens me to work even harder for the economic empowerment of girls in this state,” Redmond said.

She admires her fellow commissioners’ “great wisdom” of women’s issues and their “boots on the ground experience with people who are struggling in the trenches,” she said.

“They’re right in there, connected to the realities in their local communities, and that’s another thing that makes me incredibly excited about being part of this group,” she added.

While at Vermont Works for Women, Redmond occasionally served as an adviser to the commission, but she’ll join the other side of the table for the first time next month. Then, she said, she’ll do anything to broadcast their message and advocate for the women she’s spent her career representing.

“The human dignity of women and girls and all people must be paramount in our society – the common good, the raising up of people who are struggling, who don’t have opportunities that many of us had handed to us,” Redmond said. “I really see it as my role, along with the commission, to bring those issues to light … because we all have a role in raising each other up.”