Roxanne Vought: In the wake of Supreme Court decisions, Vermont’s moment to lead

This commentary is by Roxanne Vought, a Weybridge resident who is executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.

For those of us who envision — and strive each day toward — a just, thriving and transformative economy that works for all people and the planet, the final week of June 2022 was devastating.

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, eliminating a federal constitutional right and bodily autonomy simultaneously. 

On June 30, the court limited the EPA’s ability to reduce climate pollution from power plants, severely damaging our ability to tackle our escalating climate crisis.

Either one of these callous decisions alone is enough to crush one’s resolve. But the quick succession of these particular, nationwide gut punches landed unexpectedly hard, even for longtime, savvy and scarred justice advocates. 

I know I am not the only American who spent this recent Fourth of July weekend wondering, “What aspect of independence, what form of liberty will be next?”

But as a Vermonter and as the executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, I had parallel thoughts that bore a different weight.

As our member businesses have long understood, while we are steadfastly focused on prioritizing our employees, our communities, and our environment, we only do so in the broader, no-borders context of People, Planet, and Prosperity. We know that our actions have a positive impact beyond our state lines. We recognize — and embrace — our capacity to show leadership outside Vermont.

At this moment, we must frame our unique capacity for values-led leadership not just as an opportunity, but as an obligation. We have a duty to inspire. We must be a brave little state because, as public health and human rights are trampled here and elsewhere, others are studying our example as they perhaps never have before. If we want things to improve nationally, it is our job to show how it is done locally — by citizens, by communities, by businesses, by legislators, all acting in good faith for the common good.

We can start by doing our part — as voters, as influencers, as advocates — to enshrine reproductive rights in Vermont’s constitution this fall. Proposal 5, a proposed amendment, will be on the November general election ballot and can make this happen. As Gov. Scott’s office made clear last week, “Vermont is regarded as having one of the most difficult constitutional amendment processes in the nation.” In other words, if we can make it happen here, surely other states can find a way.

But there’s much to do before we vote this fall. As our partners at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England know, the consequences of denying people their right to abortion will be devastating. The SCOTUS decision hurts all genders, incomes and backgrounds — including workers, businesses, and the economy. Along with Planned Parenthood, we are calling on  members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and the business community to speak out by walking out on July 13 at 4 p.m. for the Bans Off Our Bodies Walkout.

We must also work to decarbonize Vermont’s economy, moving toward a more affordable, reliable clean energy future. In keeping with the Vermont Climate Council’s first Climate Action Plan, the Public Service Department is, as of July 5, revisiting many of our state’s most crucial clean energy policies and programs — including our long-outdated Renewable Energy Standard.

By contributing to the department’s new request for input by Aug. 5, we can put Vermont on track to power our state with entirely clean electricity faster than any other in the country. We can institute a 100% renewable energy standard by 2030 and drastically increase the current Tier II requirement (10%) for local renewable energy. This change would not only help Vermont meet our emissions reductions requirements but create good-paying jobs, ensuring that the communities, economy and grid infrastructure of the Green Mountain State are more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

The keynote address during our annual conference this spring was billed as centering on “hope.” After two years of pandemic anxiety, racial reckoning, visible climate change and political upheaval, we needed to have our aspirations revived. Dr. Carolyn Finney took the stage and shared deeply personal stories about growing up Black, socioeconomic friction, professional setbacks, family traumas, and more. She was in no rush to help anyone feel “hopeful.”

But there was method in her sometimes-unsettling recollections: by sharing her most difficult narratives, she made it clear that the personal is the communal. And the most difficult and frustrating moments in our lives have the potential to, ultimately, be the most hopeful. Her conclusion was both inspiring and pragmatic: Hope happens only when we’re vulnerable and invested with others in the toughest of fights.

I’ll paraphrase the end of her keynote here:

“Hope for me comes when everybody gets involved, so in this moment I am incredibly hopeful.”

“We are all here playing the long game and we don’t know who is going to show up with us or how they are going to show up. Therefore, we don’t yet know what will become possible, even in the moments of deepest darkness.”

“Systemic change is lifelong work. You are taking a risk in order to gain something. You are leaning into the actual practice of something. And it will cost you something, but we are worth it.”

We Vermonters know a thing or two about dark days and getting stuck — and about lighting the way and helping each other out of the muck. Let’s do our part in showing our nation there are ways to get unstuck and reasons to be hopeful.

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