In preparation for voting on March 6, we are presenting interviews with each of the Selectboard candidates. Let me introduce Shanta Lee Gander, running for one of the two available 1-year seats on the board.
Introduce yourself… who are you and what should people know about you?
I am Shanta Lee Gander and I have worn many hats in Brattleboro as a multi-faceted professional and artist. In my nine years of living here, I have served as the president of the Arts Council of Windham County, coordinated the Slow Living Summit, and designed and taught a social justice course for Oak Meadow. In some of my work, I have been instrumental in building relationships within the region and finding ways to bring individuals within and outside of New England to Brattleboro, VT.
Some may know me from the various articles I have written in The Commons, The Brattleboro Reformer, features Vermont Views, and the weekly segments, Ponder This, that aired on 100.3 FM/1490 AM as a part of the Green Mountain Mornings. My writing has also been featured on national sites such as Rebelle Society, on the Ms. Magazine Blog. Most recently, I have been involved with the projects, Peoples, Places, and the History of Words, especially in my role of bringing Lucy Terry Prince’s life to more audiences. I have also collaborated with a fellow artist to create and implement the creativity series, Nourishing the Inner Artist: Conversations about Art, Creativity, and Imagination, launching this spring.
One thing I want to share is that I like to ask questions because I am continually interested in hearing perspectives. I also appreciate when I learn new things from my dialogues with people. I also believe that as a resident of Brattleboro, it is a part of my responsibility to be a part of the positive growth in any way that I can.
Read any good books lately?
I have read a number of books recently. A couple of my favorites includes Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, I appreciated this book for the way that Morrison separated race from slavery within the context of early America. I recently read If Women Rose Rooted: A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging by Sharon Blackie which appealed to my love of myths, legends, and tales. I have ambitions of finishing Paradise Lost and I am finishing up Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (I hate adding this to the list only because of the renewed obsession with the book due to the series that launched last year, I don’t like to follow trends!). Interspersed between all of this is my love of reading fairy tales and legends from around the world.
Why are you running for the 1 year seat?
I care about being a part of the continued growth of Brattleboro and over the past 9 years of living here, I have been a part of that in various ways. Either in helping to bring individuals here from across the country in my organizing of the Slow Living Summit or as the former president of the Arts Council of Windham County. I continually reached across the borders to our neighbors in MA and NH to promote some of the great arts and culture we have here. I have also been a part of many conversations and actions that have explored how we call can collaborate to continue to grow and strengthen Brattleboro.
I am new to the scene of local politics but a fast learner. Thus, with the combination of being new to local politics and my dedication to Brattleboro, it made sense for me to see how the first-year seat feels.
What unique perspective or skills do you offer as a candidate?
I have a unique combination as a professional, an artist, and my educational background with my MBA and liberal arts undergraduate degree. In short, I understand the importance of being a vibrant arts town paired with the need for a strong infrastructure which includes energy conservation, our water system, our sidewalks, ensuring that we have a sound budget, etc.
Additionally, I have worked in different settings ranging from non-profit to city-level in different cities and states. Some of my professional work has involved coalition building which required bringing everyone into the same room across all sectors (municipal, corporate, faith-based, non-profit) around tough topics. I have led small to large-scale initiatives which required buy-in from individuals at various levels in Hartford and New Haven, CT. As a result of this work, I bring to Brattleboro my ability to listen, incorporate different ideas, and manage the expectations of all (including myself).
I also seek to continually explore people, places and settings that are significantly different than mine nationally and internationally. This has deepened my compassion and widened my perspective.
As a candidate, I bring the sum of all of my professional and personal experiences that will help to benefit Brattleboro. My life experience has also strengthened my belief that the best decisions are made when people have all of the information they need to make good, sound, and rational decisions, especially for Brattleboro. That is why reasoned discourse and asking the right questions are important in helping to make key decisions that will impact the town.
I am also not afraid to admit what I don’t know and I have been asking a number of individuals what they think I should be considering as their future selectboard candidate. I recognize that everyone, from the individuals who have lived here as residents to those in the trenches keeping our infrastructure going, have a perspective and knowledge that will help me in serving Brattleboro.
Are there any specific issues you’d like the selectboard to take on in the coming year?
There are a number of issues that the Selectboard will be tackling that include key decisions about our infrastructure along with other ways we continue to strengthen the quality of life for residents in the area. In terms of our infrastructure, it will be key to ensure we have the updated equipment we need to keep the town running efficiently and continue to keep us safe. A great example of this was illustrated in the recent approval to replace our fire station’s 26-year-old ladder truck. This is key for many reasons especially given the fact that we are the only career fire department within twenty miles.
Other key things mentioned in some of our town documents include reviewing ways that we can increase efficiency through energy conservation, exploring our IT infrastructure, and continuing to find ways to improve conditions for overall mobility in ways that will keep our pedestrians and cyclists safe. One of the latest estimates I was given for our Putney Road roundabout, for example, was about 19,000 vehicles that pass through on a given day. All of these issues that have been highlighted illustrate the town’s priority in being proactive.
Within the equation of quality of life for our residents, it is no secret that there are increased mental health and addiction needs here. Opoid addiction in this area is real and it is hurting our children and our families. We also have to address the homeless population along with other populations of individuals who need help with transitional housing. What more could we be doing in these areas to help these populations?
Ultimately, Brattleboro must be conservative with its values and not lose track of what makes it unique. Yet it must be dynamic in pursuing economic opportunities based on its intrinsic strengths and infrastructures.
How would you describe Brattleboro to someone who’s never been here?
Brattleboro is a vibrant town that is filled with eclectic and interesting individuals. The size may be surprising at first, especially if you are from a larger city, but you will quickly find yourself adjusting to some of the charm and the ease of intimacy here. One can easily stay updated about everything from social gatherings to issues facing the community through casual conversation. It is also an environment that allows and encourages everyone to test their ideas and passions with ease.
What could Brattleboro use that it doesn’t already have?
In some ways I feel like this is a trick question. I am not being Pollyanna when I say we have a lot of things here and we need to inventory of it and figure out how to leverage it. Brattleboro has a very rich history related to print (the first U.S.-printed copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was printed here along with a long history of firsts re: printing and publishing). Regarding industry, artisans from around the world came to the area to be involved with the Estey Organ Company. We need to be asking ourselves: what are all of our assets, including a wealth of social capital that exists here? How can all of these things be leveraged in a way that continues to improve the quality of life for those who are here while attracting tourists?
Town staff relies heavily on the Long Term Financial Plan, Comprehensive Review of Town Operations, and Town Plan. Have you read any or all of these, and what’s your impression of our near-term future as outlined in these plans?
I have looked at these documents. I am honestly still digesting all of the information along with what I am familiar with through my ongoing conversations and various articles. It is a step in the right direction in terms of some of our short and mid-term plans regarding economic growth in this area, especially as it relates to exploring ways to support current and attract new local business. One of the exciting developments that was the recent approval of a human resources professional. This is a key step in further implementing Brattleboro’s focus on diversity, inclusion, and equity especially as it relates to recruitment and leveling the playing field.
Other positive examples of some of our short and mid-term plans includes our push to build an economic hub coalition throughout the state which will allow us to learn from other towns. Brattleboro is a hub town and we need to be taking a proactive approach in addressing some of the economic challenges that may arise. Perhaps our coalition work in this area will provide a model that we can apply to leveraging and supporting some of the other assets that we have. For example, perhaps a similar coalition that supports arts and culture sector in ways that connect it to sustainability of the creative economy. There are groups and networks such as the Vermont Creative Network who have been working in this area and can be a part of some of these explorations.
We also have some sound plans in terms of exploring ways of reducing our operating costs and improving the efficiency of the town. I also believe that we are on the right track with exploring the establishment of the Brooks Memorial Library as a regional hub library. It is important for all individuals, especially families who may be homeschooling, to have access to resources and technology in the area via the library.
I also noticed mention of building some of our IT infrastructure which I believe is key to many professionals in the area who do a lot of remote work. I am pleased to see the updating of the town website on the agenda as a part of some of our near-term planning as well. I have questions about some of the ways that the plans for the site will seek to communicate or cross link with some of the other strong sites that we have for information such as the Brattleboro Chamber or the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance site.
I am curious about the ways in which the town (and other town departments) might use social media to its advantage as a way of keeping different demographics informed in the spirit of transparency and sharing information. It would be great to explore ways that some of these tools can help play a role in expanding access and keeping everyone informed of key issues and opportunities.
Again, I am still learning a lot. There might be other things I have not included in my answer but it is not due to oversight or negligence. I am allowing myself to gain more understanding.
Last year saw some of Brattleboro’s first efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion in town government. What are your thoughts on where we are, and what we could do next?
It is great that all of those efforts and dialogues took place within these areas and it is key that they continue. Last year, the Selectboard made a good decision in declaring Brattleboro as a compassionate town. The resolution for compassion in Brattleboro places a responsibility upon all of us to basically walk the walk and talk the talk in terms of overall social justice. It would be great to figure out how we all can live these principles and values in our homes and the work we do in Brattleboro.
Additionally, the insights that were shared last year in the Town Manager’s memo, “Promoting Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in the Community and on the Town Staff,” along with some of the conclusions drawn as a result of conversations with individuals within the community are all great first steps. I also appreciate the fact that our local government has clarified and is focusing on all three areas—diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sometimes it is easy to be overly focused on the area of diversity when we have to think about other areas of the equation as well. For instance, how do we create more leadership opportunities and inclusion of our young people and invite them to the table around some of the various issues? How do we make authentic connections among and between everyone across some of the class divides that sometimes separate us? In other words, how do we include those living in some of our trailer parks in Brattleboro in some of these conversations and plans regarding the quality of life here?
These are not easy questions, and I get the sense that our local government along with all of the people working in the trenches understand that diversity, equity and inclusion can’t be addressed with one conversation or one area of focus. In terms of where we are, I think addressing these things is ongoing, requires that we all are willing to continue to come to the table especially when it is most difficult. We must create real opportunities to explore and learn from each other which, again, is not always easy or fluid.
I believe the idea or concept of Diversity Day is important and we need to continue find ways in which diversity, equity, and inclusion extends beyond just a day, weekend, or month-long activity. I would like to see more ways of including some of the institutions that may be talking about and exploring these issues within established student groups and/or their classrooms. For example, seeking meaningful ways of partnering with Community College of Vermont, SIT, Marlboro, and Landmark.
Planning and conversations focused on these topics are important. However, it is in the actions and holding each other accountable that will continue to make all of these things real. It is the job of local government to make sure the playing field is level for everyone and Brattleboro seems to understand that and seems to be working towards this reality here.
Brattleboro made a commitment to compassion last year. Taxes are also going up. Can there be compassion in a municipal budget? How does “compassion” fit in to town operations, in your view?
That is an interesting and key question given our resolution for compassion in Brattleboro. I think that compassion and empathy need to have a place in the decisions that we make and within the overall town operations. The question of how to integrate these things will need work, patience, and require listening to each other. For example, how do we think about this concept of compassion and access across class differences regarding trash removal and recycling? How do we balance the need for ensuring our quality of life via supporting our infrastructure with maintaining our values here in Brattleboro? Again, not easy questions, but these are things that I believe we will have to figure out along the way.
Vermont will have a form of legal marijuana in July. Thoughts?
I am not a recreational drug user. However, it is worth noting that the criminalization of marijuana over the past hundred years has had a terrible effect on some communities within America in terms of the jail time associated with it. As a recreational drug, marijuana is not without its risks, but all evidence indicates that it is less risky than alcohol or tobacco. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that the medical value of marijuana has been established. If there is any way that our move towards legalization can help to provide relief to those who are suffering from various illnesses and physical challenges, that can only be a good thing.
The legalization of marijuana in America is long overdue. Our legislature has taken a balanced and measured approach in my view. This is not really a town issue but a state issue. I do hope that it would free the Brattleboro Police Department to focus on some of the higher priorities that it has.
Brattleboro’s energy use is an ongoing topic. We’ve been making energy improvements in municipal buildings, changing the devices we use to low-power alternatives, and looking for electric dump trucks and other vehicles. Are we doing enough? Is Brattleboro’s vision for a sustainable future correct and clearly articulated?
I think that we can do more to ensure that everyone understands the conversation and the importance of energy improvement as it is related to overall management of the town and efficiency. Again, I am still learning about all of these things, especially in this area. One of my goals is to continue the conversations that I have started to get a better understanding of some of the ways that we can continue to move in this direction.
Have any jokes you can share?
You know, I am horrible at sharing jokes or re-telling them. Something in the delivery. I am told that I am funny but I think it has to do more with some of the funny stories that I share rather than joke telling (I would never make it in stand-up comedy). I do have a tendency to see the humor in a lot of things and perhaps even things that I should not, but humor is key to life and I like to laugh a lot.
Studies show municipal broadband (towns offering internet as a utility) is less expensive, has more transparent pricing than commercial providers, and gives protection against commercial ISP net neutrality whims. It also creates jobs and revenue. Brattleboro has fiber running right through town. Should Brattleboro explore the possibility of municipal broadband for Brattleboro?
It is worth exploring all of our options while thinking about what the costs and benefits would be to all in Brattleboro and the individuals we wish to attract here. This kind of access could have the potential of cost savings by giving professionals easy access and the ability work from anywhere with ease rather than needing to provide offices.
Before we fully make the decision, we should explore some of the following questions: How will this provide more or less access to everyone? What will be the cost of maintaining it? What can we learn from some of our neighbors in other New England towns who have taken or explored this route (like a couple of cities in Massachusetts)?
Most of municipal planning for “the future” takes us 3-5 years ahead. Is this a long enough timeframe? Should Brattleboro add a component that studies a more long-term future, such as 20-50 years ahead?
I believe it is worth exploring. However, I also think it is important to constantly look at our long-term plans. If we engaged in a planning process that included a 20 or 50-years ahead look, does this limit the incentive to constantly re-visit our goals?
Is there anything you’d like to answer that we didn’t ask you?
One thing I want to add or make clear is that I am interested in serving Brattleboro and I may not have all of the answers to some of the big questions that come up. I am dedicated to listening and asking questions in order to seek understanding on the issues. I am also open to others asking me their tough questions. I will admit that I may not have the answers, but I am willing to go get the information I need in terms of talking to the right people who are doing the work and reading the things I need to read in order to help me to arrive at a sound decision.
I want to have a role in ensuring that our local government is creating a level playing field for everyone while making sure that our town has all of the infrastructure support it needs to continually improve the quality of life here. I also want to be a part of a culture that encourages ongoing dialogues about these issues in ways that are proactive.
How can people find out more about your campaign?
Thanks for spending time with iBrattleboro.com!