Public Policy Forums @ CAPA
10/12/17 - Media and Democracy: Rights and Responsibilities of a Free Press
The Public Policy Forums @ CAPA series saw an impressive audience turnout for its final symposium that addressed “Media and Democracy: Rights and Responsibilities of a Free Press.” The evening’s distinguished guests included Jesse Holcomb, former associate director at Pew Research Center and current assistant professor of communications at Calvin College; Anne Galloway, editor and founder of VTDigger and executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust; and David Goodman, journalist and author who, along with his work, has appeared in a variety of national media platforms including NPR’s Fresh Air, CNN, and the New York Times.
Jesse Holcomb provided some historical context surrounding the public’s relationship with the media, referring to the 20th century media model in the US as a “happy accident of politics, economics, and technology”—an anomaly, not the norm. The decline of trust in the media after peaking at Watergate, he said, has led to the emerging of new, competitive media marketplaces and the disruption of journalism’s business model, especially in the wake of the digital revolution. As we become more ideologically divided than ever, this distrust has since extended past journalism to any and all large institutions that purport to serve the populus. The overarching theme in the audience’s questions was, “How can we get things back to the way they were?” Jesse’s answer: “We probably can’t, and that might be the wrong question.”
David Goodman, on the other hand, was more optimistic, saying he “…was hopeful—about the media, about our politics. In adversity such as we find now, it’s the media’s finest hour; they’re starting to challenge the authority, and questioning always. It shouldn’t be just when they’re under attack that these things happen.” Goodman also noted that he found the rise in activism as of late encouraging, referencing January 21st’s Women’s March as a prime example of “people realizing they have to tell their own stories via whatever media is available to them.” He referred to the American media as an institution that, at times, risks serving as a megaphone for those in power, used to sell “products”—ideas—to gain constituent support. He stressed the importance of “find[ing] the voices from the streets and not from the corporate suites,” a philosophy Anne Galloway has exemplified since she founded VTDigger, an independent investigative news source that aims to fill in gaps in the media landscape, in 2009. Relating Goodman’s idea of the media being used to “sell” to her personal philosophy surrounding, Galloway said she had “never had the gift of bullshit. If you’re selling a product, you need that.”
As the night came to a close, all three emphasized that rebuilding journalistic and civic trust starts at our doorsteps. In Goodman’s words: “We have to be critical and work to understand what is influencing the messages and stories we get, and speak out. We need to demand that they be responsive.”
10/10/17 - Incarceration in America: Prison Education and Reform in Vermont
On Tuesday night, CAPA hosted the penultimate installment of its Public Policy Forum series, inviting public officials and scholars to discuss “Incarceration in America: Prison Education and Reform in Vermont.” Panelists included Daniel Karpowitz, lecturer in Law and the Humanities and director of Policy and Academics for the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College; Richard Sears, Vermont State Senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Maxine Grad, Vermont State Representative and chair of the House Judiciary Committee; and Lisa Menard, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections.
“America: a country devoted to the death of paradox,” quoted Daniel Karpowitz, author of College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration, from James Baldwin’s Many Thousands Gone. Karpowitz encouraged the audience to be more conscientious of our inherent problem-solving nature; he warned that in our rush to name, identify, and fix problems, we neglect to slow down and acknowledge the paradoxes, contradictions, and problems that may lie within them—this, he argued, can lead to more harm than good. Karpowitz went on to discuss the “opportunities and hazards” surrounding the Bard Prison Initiative, a project through Bard College that provides degree programs for inmates at six satellite campuses in prisons across New York State. While the program has been largely successful—its graduates boast a 2% recidivism rate and 85% are employed within 90 days of release—he stressed that it was not immune to the aforementioned issue of paradox. There are still issues surrounding mobilization of resources, approaches that focus on “deficit and disability” over potential and ability, and “academic mismatch,” especially in the college’s efforts to get other academic institutions to develop similar initiatives of their own. Karpowitz argued that efforts to expand similar programs (today, equivalents exist in 23 prisons, 10 states, and with 12+ institutions) are a result of the certain social responsibility private colleges have to serve the greater populus that stems from their tax-exempt status.
Lisa Menard, Richard Sears, and Maxine Grad shifted the conversation to discuss the ideas and issues Karpowitz brought up as they apply to the state of Vermont. While the state is currently the safest in the country and has been moving toward a more progressive criminal justice system, Menard still stressed the issue of inconsistency across each of Vermont’s 14 counties’ separate judicial systems, a trend Karpowitz referred to as “hyper-federalization.” Despite this, it quickly became evident that decreasing the prison population and increasing public safety—the goals of the National Council of State Governments Justice Center on which Sears serves—are both things that Vermont has achieved in recent years. Maxine Grad discussed her work on the front lines of criminal justice reform to reduce the collateral consequences of criminal records, redefine what a criminal record means in the first place and how long the state should look back on it, and the reclassification of drug-related crimes, all of which have contributed to these achievements. Within the prisons themselves, Menard addressed the shift in state correctional facilities from offense-based supervision to risk-based supervision. In her words, “people need services based holistically on who they are, not what they did.” Referencing the successes of Karpowitz’s efforts in bringing Bard College programs to prisons in New York, Menard mentioned initiatives like the Community High School of Vermont, which provides GED-granting programs to inmates in each of the state’s eight facilities, and college-level pilot programs through the University of Vermont that have yielded positive results thus far, as well.
Many of the audience questions centered around the need for a broader criminal justice conversation, a desire each of the four speakers expressed early on in the evening’s discussion. As Menard said, “We need to look at reform as a continuum, and shift the focus to determining where individuals fit within that continuum—if at all. This isn’t just about criminal justice reform— it’s about all systems where people’s lives intersect with the state government.”
10/5/17 - Foreign Policy: International Affairs in the Era of Trump
“Revolutions, like hurricanes, can come as a surprise and defy prediction.”
These powerful words from Mansour Farhang, former Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations and current Middle East Watch advisory board member, set the stage for an engaging night of learning and debate at Thursday’s “Foreign Policy: International Affairs in the Era of Trump” as part of the Public Policy Forum @ CAPA. Farhang was joined by two other panelists—Delaram Farzaneh, faculty fellow with Wellesley College’s Freedom Project and expert on international human rights and women’s rights in Iran, and Nicholas Rostow, visiting chair of Government and Jurisprudence at Colgate University—who spoke to a packed audience of students, faculty, and members of the Bennington community. All three scholars brought unique perspectives to the table in discussing Iran’s history, foreign policy, and relationship with the United States under both former and current administrations.
While Farhang compared and contrasted the Russian, French, and Chinese Revolutions with that of Iran, referring to the latter’s focus as “restoration” over the former’s “reinvention,” Farzaneh quoted Hillary Clinton in emphasizing that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Rostow provided a broader historical context, citing Iran’s “fundamental hostility to the West,” especially since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 rendered its international relations often strained and tense. The connections between the myriad sources of conflict in Iran soon became apparent, and was met with a host of thoughtful questions and comments from the attendees, including why the United States has to involve themselves with Iran in the first place, and how does Iran’s goal of “ideological restoration” to its former golden age parallel with President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra.
Ultimately, all three speakers expressed optimism in Iran’s future following this year’s re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist and reformist politician known for his work surrounding personal freedom, women’s rights, access to information, and improving Iran’s diplomatic relations with other countries.
CAPA Director Susan Sgorbati asked the final question of the night, prompting Farhang, Farzaneh, and Rostow to reflect upon what our obligations and responsibilities are as lay citizens. Farhang encouraged people to “find the active people where you live and join them,” while Rostow emphasized the importance of constituent mail and staying informed.
Farzaneh’s words especially resonated with those in attendance, and served as an empowering close to the evening’s discussion: “Be fearless. When you see there are issues that are important to you, or important to those around you, raise them up. Have the discourse, and don’t stay quiet. It’s critical, and we all have that obligation.”
9/28/17 - The Healthcare Debate: Current Issues
“How can we, as citizens and students, get involved in solving the healthcare issues that are so important to us?”
With this prompt, CAPA Director Susan Sgorbati opened the latest Public Policy Forum on "The Healthcare Debate: Current Issues." Four pioneers in the design and delivery of healthcare in Vermont sitting in the front of the room began the evenings discussion by responding to Sgorbati’s question. This event was also covered by local press, including the Bennington Banner.
Peter Sterling, a longtime advocate for single-payer health care in Vermont and chief of staff for VT State Senator Tim Ashe, began the discussion on an aspirational note. While noting his disappointment that a plan for single-payer insurance in Vermont stalled under the last administration, Sterling found hope in the longer history of reforms in the state. Sterling cited a number of past successful programs like Dr. Dynasaur and Catamount Health that, with the help of existing federal programs like Medicaid and Medicare, have led to over 50% of Vermonters getting their health insurance from the public source.
Vermont, Sterling noted, is still a model for the nation of how to move towards public health insurance. As the costs—and the profits—of private health insurance have exploded in recent years, Sterling explained, stress fractures in the current system have come into disconcerting focus. Sterling expressed his hope that once the unreasonable cost of private insurance became clear to businesses, a path to single-payer would re-emerge.
Again, Sterling thought Vermont could lead the nation down this path. Not only have Vermonters kept the partisan rancor over healthcare at arms-length, they also have kept sight of why healthcare matters. “Having worked on a lot of issues,” Sterling said, “healthcare is the most personal. It’s not a typical legislative issue.”
Taking up the call for better healthcare in Vermont from “in the trenches” of legislation, VT State Senator Virginia Lyons and vice chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, offered insights. The state, Lyons explained, continued to seek better healthcare with the goal of lowering or stabilizing cost while increasing quality and access. Lyons referenced ongoing improvements at both micro and macro levels, such as the VT Blueprint for Health and VT Act 113, as tangible examples of steps in the right direction.
Real change, Lyons stated, always comes down to a matter of negotiation and political will. Her committee will be looking seriously at propositions for single-payer systems in 2018, and she is confident that constructive criticisms and ideas will arise out of these discussions.
“Healthcare is one of the most challenging issues we’re facing as both a state and a nation.” With these words, Tom Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Healthcare, opened his reflections on what to do about healthcare in the Bennington region. Steering clear of the single-payer issue, Dee instead directed attention towards “the social drivers of health”—economic status, social mobility, and diet—and described how targeted investments in the socio-economic context of well-being could radically improve the health of southern Vermont.
“We can’t solve this problem by staying with the status quo. We need big thoughts for big changes and big approaches.” The ultimate goal, Dee explained, was to create a more accountable community of healthcare providers, changing the way they think about caring for their patients and encouraging them to work together as collaborators and not competitors.
Kevin Mullin, Green Mountain Care Board Chair, was the night’s final speaker. Echoing the vision for change expressed by other panelists, Mullin stated that Vermont is ranked second in the nation (just behind Massachusetts) for the lowest number of uninsured residents. He cited three areas that could help make healthcare more affordable for more Vermonters: regulation, innovation, and evaluation. The end goal, he concluded, would be the “rationalization of healthcare, not a rationing of healthcare.”
In a wide-ranging Q&A with students and local residents, the discussion moved from who counts as a Vermonter when the state reforms healthcare for its residents to why the consent of business must be the trigger for returning to single-payer plan for Vermont. Several international students offered salient comparisons of healthcare in their home communities versus healthcare in the United States, and asked thoughtful questions about the status of students, and especially international students, in ongoing discussion of healthcare reform in Vermont.
9/21/17 - Clean Water: What Will it Take to Clean the Waters of Vermont?
What will it take to clean the waters of Vermont? This served as the central question for the second installment of CAPA’s Public Policy Forum series, one which CAPA Director Susan Sgorbati described as “relevant to the region, the country, and the world.”
Senator Brian Campion introduced the panel consisting of Chris Bray, chair of the Senate's Natural Resources and Energy Committee; David Mears, former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation; Jim Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission; and David Bond, associate director of CAPA and Bennington faculty member. Senator Campion cited the panelists' “incredible experience and unique perspectives on the question we have been asking ourselves for decades.”
Senator Chris Bray was the first panelist to speak on the issue and opened with a quote from naturalist and preservation advocate John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” The rest of his words reflected this statement, maintaining throughout that there was “no topic more intimate than water in terms of environmental and public health” and that the responsibility of upholding our commitments to clean water initiatives was a perpetual one that requires a long-term mindset.
David Mears, current professor at the Vermont Law School specializing in environmental law and policy, echoed many of Bray’s sentiments. He proposed three themes that need to be taken into account when considering how to approach clean water in the state: the need to look at large, complex ecological problems such as these with an equally ecological mindset; the role of the law, which “reflects the way in which we, as humans in our social contracts, engage with legal systems as they relate to the environment”; and the use of the democratic process to solve ecological problems. He referred to possible solutions as attainable, but pointed out that the issue of clean water is inherently political and that its complexities increase with the human values placed upon it.
Jim Sullivan of the Bennington County Regional Commission provided some historical context by examining how water pollution came to be a problem in the first place—namely, the impacts of industry and airborne pollutants in recent decades. Sullivan noted that while water pollution is not a new problem, it is one that will take regulation, enforcement, and funding for education, technical support, and project development to begin to improve. He closed by stressing that “this is all of our problem”; in order to truly begin to enact change, we must first accept responsibility for what we have all contributed to.
The last speaker, cultural anthropologist and ethnographic researcher David Bond, opened by noting “there is something particular about our historical moment that has brought water to a particular urgency for us.” Referencing his research across a number of sites in locales ranging from St. Croix to Alaska, Bond addressed the role climate change has played in bringing water to the forefront of many public policy initiatives in the United States and beyond. Bond states that our mindsets must shift from finding solutions or ways to remove the problem altogether and instead to finding ways to manage it. In closing, he posed a number of important questions: given this planetary scale, what authority is equipped to think about these problems now? Whose voices count?
Proposed solutions included continuing the work of the Vermont Clean Water Act (Act 64) by building upon the state’s existing model of regulated utilities to create a statewide clean water utility to work in concert with municipalities and regions throughout the state; looking into using more low-impact development when designing communities to change the way in which we live in our landscapes; and changing our lifestyles to avoid the use of the toxic substances that are polluting the waters of the state of Vermont and beyond. Each of the panelists emphasized the role of the public sector and the need for involvement at all levels of government to enacting positive change.
As David Mears said, “We need people who are going to engage in their communities, at whatever level—local, state, or federal—who are going to engage in making a difference. In a democracy, it’s us: the government is us. We cannot have conversations about the government as though it is some third entity that isn’t us. Our engagement is critical and necessary to make a difference.”
9/14/17 - States' Rights: The Struggle Between the President and the States
CAPA kicked off its Public Policy Forums with States' Rights: The Struggle Between the President and the States, with guest speakers Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan and Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos.
"We're delighted to launch this series with these distinguished guests, who are doing such important work in our state at this critical moment in history," said CAPA Director Susan Sgorbati, who is co-teaching the CAPA course hosting this series with Vermont State Senator Brian Campion.
The forum, which was attended by a packed audience of both students and members of the Bennington community, began with brief introductions by Condos and Donovan who covered their personal philosophies towards working in the public realm, relevant experience in the field, and what their respective positions typically entail on a day-to-day basis. Having served in a number of governmental capacities—everything from city council to state senator to civil litigation lawyer—for the past several decades, the two collectively boasted an impressive track record of civil service and advocacy.
The remainder of the forum consisted of an open Q&A-style session between the attendees and the two state officials. The resulting dialogue was powerful, and shed light on the growing dichotomy between the state vs. federal governments. A wide array of topics— including voter fraud, recidivism and the causes of criminality, environmental activism, and civil rights under the current administration and different courses of action to take—were all touched upon and discussed at length.
“Tolerance, equality, unity, freedom. These are the issues that, when you boil it down, come down to the tension of federalism and basic civil rights. Nobody will agree with every decision you make, but when making decisions, you can’t check which way the political winds are blowing,” said Donovan on dealing with constituents who express their disapproval in choices made by the state government. “At the most basic level,” Condos said, “government is customer service. We represent the people of the state of Vermont and the job is to help Vermonters and reflect the overarching values of the state.”
The event was also covered by the Bennington Banner (article here).
CAPA's Vermont Legislative Series forums addressed policies and recent bills passed in the Vermont legislature; topics included The Vermont Renewable Energy bill (Act 56), the Vermont Education bill (Act 46), the Vermont Clean Water bill (Act 64), Student-Centered Learning (Act 77), and Building a Healthy Bennington. These forums were created for the Bennington College community and for the citizens of the Town of Bennington and the Village of North Bennington communities, with the goal of educating students and the public about current restructuring of educational governance and the current policies around energy, water, education, health, and more in the state.