By: Dawn Irwin
As I type this on my laptop keyboard, flying on a plane heading back to Vermont after attending the Save the Children Action Network Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C., I can’t help but sit here and think about what has brought me to this moment. The past three days have been a whirlwind of workshops, discussion panels, meetings, dinners, and networking, and it still doesn’t feel real. Honestly, I never ever saw myself heading to our nation’s capital, sitting in congressional offices, and speaking on behalf our of country, and ultimately, the world’s most vulnerable population. But…here I am.
So. How did I get here?
Three years ago, I was talking to a teacher friend of mine about how hopeless I was feeling about the fate of our world. It seemed as though everything was getting worse by the day, sometimes the hour, and it was hard not be consumed by it. I was observing, as well as experiencing, the hardships young families in Vermont are facing due to the childcare crisis. I was stuck in a broken system that no one seemed to care about, let alone want to fix. On top of it all, I was a huge Bernie supporter. His defeat and the rise of Trump was a reality I was having an extremely hard time comprehending. The helplessness I was experiencing was getting out of control and I didn’t know what to do to make it better. I remember saying how much I wished there was something, ANYTHING, I could do to change the trajectory I felt like our world was heading in. That’s when my friend told me about an organization called Let’s Grow Kids. I had never heard of it before so she explained that it is a non-profit organization working towards the goal of creating real change for our field and the children and families affected by it. She said they were looking for volunteers to help get the word out and advocate on behalf of the kids and families in our state.
At the time, trying to make any kind of difference felt impossible for two reasons – I did not feel like I had anything worth value to contribute and even if I felt like I did, I assumed any efforts put in on my part would have been in vain. But, I decided to put what Bernie had preached throughout his campaign into practice – I had to become an active member of the community and be the change I wanted to see in the world. So, I hesitantly told my friend that I would attend the next Let’s Grow Kids Burlington Action Team Meeting with her and see what it was all about.
The excited nervousness that was racing through my body was both terrifying and exhilarating. I had never been to a meeting like this before. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I couldn’t stop playing the What If Game in my head. You know the one…What if I don’t know anyone? What were we going to talk about? What would the people be like? What if I said something stupid? What if they didn’t like me? Or, worst of all, what if they told me to leave because they realized I actually didn’t belong there in the first place?
I walked in the door to the meeting room and all of my worst fears evaporated immediately. I was greeted with smiles and a warm, welcoming atmosphere that made me feel comfortable almost right away. From that night on, I was hooked. Three months later, I attended my first Let’s Grow Kids Advocacy Conference. Since then, I have never looked back.
I never imagined I would be politically active. I thought, why would anyone listen to what I had to say? What difference could I make? I had never met any legislators, let alone talked to one. What could one person really do to affect change?
Well, it turns out, that one person can do a lot.
The folks at Let’s Grow Kids believed in me and my ability to become an effective advocate for change. They took a person that had no experience, as well as zero confidence, and taught me that passion and a willingness to try new things goes a long way. They offered me opportunities to use the skills I already had to build new ones. Slowly, but surely, through tiny supported steps outside of my comfort zone, I began to believe in myself.
But, most importantly, they made me believe that real change was actually possible.
Since that first fateful action team meeting, I have collected petition signatures, tabled various events, participated in door to door canvassing, phone banking, been an active member of two action teams, initiated direct correspondence with legislators, talked with representatives face to face, event set up a meeting between a local legislator and some of his constituents. I’ve given a speech about advocacy, and also supported others in their evolution to becoming effective advocates. Then, just about a month and a half ago, I was given the opportunity to up my advocacy game.
Save the Children Action Network hosted an event in Burlington. Actor and activist, Jennifer Garner, and the CEO of Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), Mark Shriver, gave a talk about Save the Children and work they engage in to support families, children, and early education in America. They also talked about SCAN and what they are doing to create policy change at a national level. After the event, Holly and I were both invited to fill out applications for the chance to be one of five Vermont representatives to attend the 2019 Save the Children Action Network Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C. At the summit, we would be learning about national policy change focused on issues revolving around early childhood and education, as well as the challenges facing children and families on a global level and what we can do as Americans to help protect the world’s most vulnerable population.
As I’m sure you can guess, Holly and I jumped at the chance. We both filled out our applications, were interviewed, and ultimately accepted as two of the Vermont representatives. We were so excited to be able to take the skills Let’s Grow Kids had taught us in a local setting and apply them on a national scale. What’s even more amazing is that we didn’t feel nervous at all! What we felt was motivated, energized, and confident. We boarded our plane to D.C. ready to meet this new challenge head on.
Thinking back over the last three days, I just can’t believe it really happened. We took the bull by the horns and made the absolute most out of the time we had there. We were up early every day and went to bed late every night. We filled our time with workshops, panel discussions, long talks about national policy, hearing remarkable personal stories told by amazing advocates from around the country and the world, interviewing folks about advocacy – including Mark Shriver (Whaaaat!?!) - for our new podcast (don’t worry, you will see more about this soon), making new friends, sharing our passion for teaching and early education everywhere we went. And, last, but certainly not least, we went to Capitol Hill and advocated for policy change with representatives from each Vermont’s legislators’ office. Honestly, so many things have happened in the last 72 hours, its hard to keep it all straight in my mind.
But, the thing I keep coming back to is this: None of this would have been possible, and I would not be the person I am today, without Let’s Grow Kids.
Because of Let’s Grow Kids, I’ve realized that I have a voice and a story worth listening to. I feel empowered, capable of creating real change. I have met so many talented, passionate, and motivated human beings, locally and now nationally, ready and willing to join forces to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors. And, I absolutely without a doubt WOULD NOT have had the courage to ask Mark Shriver, the CEO of Save the Children Action Network, for an interview if I hadn’t cultivated confidence in myself and my abilities through my experiences with Let’s Grow Kids.
But, the most important thing Let’s Grow Kids has done for me is given me the opportunity to teach my children the incredible role advocacy plays in our lives and the impact it makes on the world around them. My now four-year-old son has been right alongside me on this exhilarating ride. He’s been to countless meetings, collected signatures, shook hands and conversed with local legislators, and has been to the State House nine times. His enthusiastic participation at Let’s Grow Kids events is something I look forward to, almost as much as he does.
Four-year-old Lincoln observing the Vermont House of Representatives
The last time we went to the State House, we were watching the floor proceedings. Suddenly, Representative Marybeth Redmond, the representative from our district, stood up, acknowledged him by name, thanked him for the work as an advocate for Vermont kids, just like himself, and asked the Speaker of the House to recognize him. The Speaker recognized him and then every representative on the House floor stood up and clapped.
Every single member of the House of Representatives stood up and clapped for my son.
He stood up and looked at all of those important grownups standing and clapping for him with confidence, pride, and accomplishment oozing out of his little four-year-old body. His face in that moment is something I will never ever forget.
My son knows without a doubt that his voice, and his future vote, really do matter.
Since becoming an advocate, Vermont has started taking the challenges surrounding early childhood very seriously. In the last election cycle, both gubernatorial candidates made childcare one of their top policy issues. And, this legislative session the Vermont House has now passed two bills that specifically address issues facing Vermont children, families, and early educators.
On March 27th, H.531, the “Child Care & Early Learning” Bill passed unanimously (!!!!!) and on April 5th, H.107, the “Paid Family & Medical Leave” Bill was passed. These are two huge wins for Vermont, especially when only four short years ago most Vermonters, let alone legislators, had no idea how bad our childcare crisis truly was.
Even with these two steps forward, we still have an extremely long journey ahead of us.
So, I’m putting out a call for action. Let’s follow in my son’s footsteps. Let’s be brave and put ourselves out there. Talk to community members, reach out to legislators and policy makers on both a local and national level. Take those tiny steps out of our comfort zones, let our voices be heard on behalf of all of Vermont’s, and our nation’s, children. And, let’s not forget to celebrate. Celebrate what we’ve accomplished and the extraordinary future we are building together.
Please. Join Holly, myself, my son, and thousands of others. Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves and create the change you want see in the world.
Because you can. Because you must.
My ten-month-old daughter, Virginia, Vermont's littlest advocate, hanging out on the House floor.