In Their Own Words
By Barbara Murphy
Former President of Johnson State College, VWW Board Member
June in Vermont is a time of letting go. We trust that summer will really come, the lakes and rivers warm enough for us to swim in, the gardens we were starting to doubt will come back to life. For anyone who has had a career in education, June also, and mostly, marks graduation. No one but a fatally cynical person gets through the graduation season without renewed hope in the future of this country and a belief in the next generation of people who will take their places in our neighborhoods, our schools and hospitals, our businesses and our public and creative spaces.
So, it is in this hopeful season of commencement that I joined the staff of Vermont Works for Women and Salvation Farms to celebrate five Vermont women for their recent success. This group of five women—the first all-women cohort to do so—completed a sixteen-week program at the Salvation Farms Vermont Commodity Program’s food hub in Winooski. All five of the participants began and finished together. This is a 100% cohort success rate and is a rare thing.
This is a 100% cohort success rate and is a rare thing.”
For four months participants met five days a week and processed 60,000 lbs. of carrots and potatoes donated by Vermont farms whose best efforts still left edible produce in the ground available for gleaning, processing and packing. At graduation, women showed us the machines they had mastered and gave us a look at the cold storage room where stacks of freshly bagged root crops towered—tagged for the Vermont Food Bank and other distribution sites.
The five program trainees were not without their individual challenges. These included childcare needs, transportation snags, and histories that in some cases meant interrupted or derailed careers. Through a carefully designed curriculum that taught the “hard skills” of operating vegetable cleaning equipment, quality assessment, and packing alongside what we too dismissively call the “soft” skills of perseverance, problem-solving, job application and interviewing, all five met with success. And along the way, program completers earned recognized certifications in ServSafe, OSHA, and Red Cross First Aid/CPR.
It does not diminish the individual successes of the participants to give credit to the organizational partners who birthed this particular program. Vermont Works for Women (VWW) is a thirty-year-old non-profit organization with its roots in matching women with dignified and stable work, challenging notions of gendered careers. VWW has evolved over the last three decades in its particular programs but not in its enduring commitment to the economic well-being of women and girls. Signature programs include Rosie’s Girls—summer programs that empower girls by exposing them to power tools and building trades, an annual Women Can Do conference that attracts hundreds of Vermont girls and women for hands-on career exploration, Step In To Work that pairs job placement and training with ongoing individual support as needed.
Salvation Farms is a local non-profit committed to building food system resiliency, which that continues to demonstrate that Vermont has the skills and tools it needs to move end-of-season produce –after the farmers have finished their harvesting—to distribution sites around the state and, finally, to the kitchens and tables of food-insecure Vermonters. It is a brilliant program supported by the agricultural community and willing volunteers across the state.
What these programs share—Salvation Farms and Vermont Works for Women— is a belief that the situations immediately before us—from leftover potatoes still in the ground to an individual’s uneven employment record—are just starting points. In common, too, is the conviction that each of us will likely need partners to make our ways forward.
The graduation I attended earlier this summer was a modest one. Five is a small class. There was no music and no caps and gowns. Speeches were short and, yet, pitch-perfect as instructors described in the most precise terms what each participant brought with her to the program and what new skills she had mastered. Each graduate declined to speak—a public voice is a skill acquired over time and accumulated successes—but one graduate asked to give something out. She went to each of her five new colleagues and placed a necklace around her neck. At the end of the chain was a pendant that said “graduate”.
I’ve presided over close to two dozen graduations in my career. This last one stole my heart with the best of them. And if we get to move more women closer to real and true work, feeding Vermont’s children in the process, no one loses anything and we all become better.
And if we get to move more women closer to real and true work, feeding Vermont’s children in the process, no one loses anything and we all become better.”