Saving the George Stannard House

There’s a saying that bounces around the Vermont Senate chamber: “There are no bad committees.” Although Finance and Appropriations are considered the sexy “money” committees”, you will undoubtedly learn something in each and every committee.

I spend my afternoons in Senate Institutions. We huddle in a well-appointed room and discuss matters primarily concerning the Capital Bill and monies that are appropriated for the upkeep of state lands and properties.We also take testimony on a vast array of programs, including: IT projects, corrections and town fairs. Often the witness updates are fairly straightforward, but sometimes there are surprises.

Last week Vermont historian Howard Coffin testified about funds the committee had appropriated several years ago for an historical marker at the Cedar Creek Battlefield Civil War Battlefield and a proposed replica of a statue at the Winchester Battlefield. In the course of his update, we learned there is a house in Milton that was the home of Vermont’s greatest Civil War leader, General George J. Stannard.

Before he distinguished himself on the battlefield, Stannard was a farmer, a teacher, and operated a foundry in St. Albans.It is said that General Stannard was the first Vermonter to volunteer for duty in the Civil War. He’d served as a noncommissioned officer during the Vermont militia’s involvement during the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1838 and was a colonel of the 4th Vermont Militia Regiment just prior to the start of the Civil War.

Stannard fought with the 2nd Vermont Volunteer Infantry at the First Battle of Bull Run, and his performance was impressive enough that he was offered command of the newly forming 3rd Vermont Infantry. But Stannard turned the promotion down, as he did not feel he’d served long enough to prove his mettle. But during the Battle of Williamsburg the following year, Stannard was instrumental in securing a critical bridge, and a week after the campaign he was appointed colonel of the 9th Vermont.

But it is Stannard’s performance at Gettysburg that is the stuff of heroes. Prior to the carnage on that Pennsylvania battlefield, Stannard had been given command of the 2nd Vermont Brigade, which consisted of the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th Vermont Infantry regiments. Primary documents indicate that his troops greatly respected him and his “quiet but effective” command style; morale improved greatly under his leadership.They were ready to follow his leadership at Gettysburg.

Civil War buffs all know that Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg was a pivotal moment in that battle and, consequently, the war. What all Vermonters need to know is that General Stannard’s acumen was a critical piece in the North’s victory on that hot, humid day in July of 1863.

General Robert E. Lee ordered the infantry assault–later referred to as Pickett’s Charge–against Maj. General George Meade’s Union forces. Stannard’s brigade was one of the primary defenders against the Confederates’ onslaught. Stannard swung two of his regiments out at a 90 degree angle and pumped deadly fire into the flanks of Confederate Brig. Gen. James Kemper’s men. Minutes later, Stannard ordered his men to mount a similar assault against the flanks of two more Confederate brigades. Stannard and his men were critical in breaking the Confederates at Gettysburg.

Stannard’s own official report from Gettysburg included this quip: “[The confederates] did not thus escape the warm reception prepared for them by the Vermonters.”

There is a major house restoration project now underway to preserve the home of this remarkable leader. You can donate online at generalstanndardhouse.org or send a check to the General Stannard House Fund ℅ Milton Historical Society, 13 School Street, Milton, VT 05468.

The Emergency Room on Wheels

When you work on a rescue squad, you see some unsavory aspects of the human condition. I was reminded of this when I–along with several of my legislative colleagues–visited the under-appreciated and underpaid EMTs and paramedics at Rescue, Inc and Deerfield Valley Rescue earlier this month.

As we sat and talked over lunch, I learned something that gave me chills: the danger associated with administering Naloxone to a person who has overdosed on heroin. The heroin user–pulled from the brink of death–often starts swinging at the rescuer because his or her “high” has been ruined. Not a great thank you for saving a life.

This is a frequent occurrence. When Naloxone (sold under the brandname Narcan) is administered to reverse the effects of opioids, the patient often experiences restlessness, anger, agitation, nausea, and vomiting. But at least the patient is alive. The effects of the Naloxone last about 30 minutes to one hour, and sometimes multiple doses are required because today’s heroin is so strong. Our rescue squads, tragically, now routinely battle to reverse heroin overdoes. But the work of these vital crews has changed dramatically in other ways, too.

My mom was an EMT and served on our local ambulance when I was a kid. I don’t think she would recognize the equipment and the vehicles that our local EMTs and paramedics use today. The ambulances have evolved into emergency rooms on wheels–each valued at $160,000 and carrying critical lifesaving equipment that, not surprisingly, is very costly to purchase and maintain. On our visit we saw a cardiac monitor priced at $42,000, a ventilator that runs $12,000 and an IV pump that sets them back a cool $10,000.

Our rescue teams obviously use these portable emergency rooms for life-threatening 911 calls, but they also serve several other vital roles in our healthcare system. Ambulance transport of patients is a key aspect of providing care in more remote areas. Vermont is a rural state, and many areas are served by small, critical access community hospitals that provide only limited services. In order to access specialty care, patients routinely need transportation to larger regional medical centers. EMS crews give treatment, transport, and care between these centers. Many of these patients require complex care due to their complicated constellation of medicines and conditions.

From emergency situations, to battling our heroin problem, to providing vital transport services to our ailing, aging population, our EMS teams are a critical part of our healthcare system. And yet, they have not been part of our statewide conversation about healthcare reform. These men and women have frequent, direct contact with patients in the field and would bring invaluable knowledge and experience to the table.

Our Windham County legislative team recently sent a letter to Al Gobeille, chair of the Green Mountain Care Board to ask that EMS crews be brought directly into the healthcare conversation.There are many certainly moving parts, but some basic questions must be answered: Why are Medicaid reimbursement rates for ambulance services negotiated separately from other parts of the system? Why aren’t ambulance services reimbursed when they respond and stabilize a patient, thus saving a much more expensive trip to the hospital? Why is there no reimbursement provided for all the drugs administered in the field?

Medicaid patients made up about 18% of local EMS calls in 2012; today that number is 32%. But Medicaid reimbursement rates have not increased since 2008. Our critical EMS teams are not on healthy financial footing. They cannot continue to deliver their vital services unless we find a way to offer them the kind of care they provide to us.

New York Values

As the nation begins to accept that the rules of engagement for the 2016 Presidential Race have changed, Ted Cruz demonstrates–yet again–that not only is he wooden, but he may not in fact have a genuine bone in his body. Cruz has been hammering Donald Trump on his “New York values” for weeks on the campaign trail and assumed that this well-worn brickbat would position him well for a debate match-up with Trump. Instead, Cruz’s stale critique of Trump’s hometown handed the mogul an opportunity to speak first-hand about a seminal moment in recent American history.

As I watched Trump wax poetic about the Big Apple’s response to 9-11, I was reminded of Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch”: “Well, in Whoville they say–that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” (At least for a few tender moments.)

Cruz’s winking and nodding–as he trots out his tired “New York values” schtick–attempts to tap into conventional wisdom about what we know about New Yorkers and those who live in “The East” and on that other “godless” coast. But it just doesn’t hold water.

What Cruz misses is that the New York response to 9-11 is now a quintessential American story: It is who we all aspire to be. Regardless of skin color or your station in life–or all the baggage that weighs us down–when the artifice is stripped away, we want to be like all those hardened New Yorkers who opened their hearts week after week, month after month, as they rebuilt lower Manhattan. It is a story of gumption, tenacity and hope in the midst of crushing grief.

I knew folks who died in that monstrous inferno on that clear September day. And I have friends who worked in buildings in close proximity to the Twin Towers who ran for their lives. And I have a friend who taught in Brooklyn who watched in horror with her class as the buildings came down and she feared her partner had been hit by the collateral damage. There was incredible caring and tenderness that emerged in that city on that ghastly, surreal day.

When I lived in the West, I repeatedly heard a narrative that many Westerners hold dear: “We Westerners are just friendlier than you folks ‘back East’.” And yet we lived in our house for six months before a single neighbor came over to introduce themselves.

One of the kindest, most generous people I know is from Los Angeles–that supposedly notoriously fake “Tinseltown”. Far from phony, she embodies big-heartedness. And although I often miss the mark as I aspire to her munificence, she is truly a guidepost for me and so many in our circle of friends. She reminds me constantly, through her deeds and spirit, that our worn out regional narratives are now obsolete, if they ever really were useful shorthands at all.

As Cruz trotted out his tired slams of “New York values” in early January, a young African American man gave his life to save a fellow New Yorker. Stephen Hewett-Brown was crushed to death after saving a woman from a malfunctioning elevator. His last words to her as he shoved her to safety? “Happy New Year.” He was only 25.

Generosity of spirit, kindness, and selflessness are not the byproducts of specific cultivation in particular regions–like some kind of personality “terroir”. We are all susceptible to the allure of simple cliches.But we are a better people, a kinder nation, when we reject them.

Troubles within: Maine’s governor plays the race card

Maine Governor Paul LePage–who is reminiscent of former Minnesota Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura in his tendency to “let it all hang out”–dropped a lulu in a recent press conference last week. Commenting on Maine’s heroin problem, LePage said about drug traffickers: “These are guys by the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty…They come up here, they sell their heroin” and then “impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”

Although LePage’s handlers insisted to the Portland Press Herald that the “governor is not making comments about race” and that “race is irrelevant”, that dubious rebuttal is beyond disingenuous. As David H. Graham points out in The Atlantic, LePage taps into a long ugly history of white politicians’ fear-mongering tied to miscegenation.

It is also impossible to read LePage’s comments without contextualizing them against the backdrop of the lynching of Emmett Till, an African American boy murdered in 1955 in Money, Mississippi for allegedly “flirting” with a white woman. The subtext to LePage’s remarks is the belief that white women need protection from black men and that Maine’s troubles are caused by non-white reprobates.

In Graham’s piece, he references a Washington Post article written by Philip Bump that recounts the ways in which LePage’s speech was not only offensive but also inaccurate. Bump notes that on the very night that LePage made his remarks, the Maine DEA arrested three people for trafficking heroin: All three were white Mainers with ho-hum names like Donna and James.

When I talk to Vermonters whose lives and families have been devastated by the heroin trade, their families are invariably Caucasian and often they are middle class. This mirrors what Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy recently pointed out to LePage: “The consumers of drugs are located in every city, in every state, in every town in our country. And they’re black and they’re white and they’re Hispanic and they’re Asian and they’re males and they’re females.”

Regardless of race, heroin traffickers count on pockets of despair and an individual’s dearth of hope and possibility. This vulnerability is income-blind, and dealers have made significant inroads to more affluent users. Raymond V. Tamas is the chief executive of an addiction treatment provider on Cape Cod. He told the Boston Globe last year, “A much greater number of folks who are addicted are now coming from middle, upper-middle socioeconomic brackets. We’ve seen this for some time now.” Which is perhaps why there seems to be a much greater emphasis now on treatment and not incarceration.

It is not lost on advocates and activists within the African American community that when heroin and crack were devastating non-white Americans, the political will for treatment versus incarceration was notably absent. According to a criminal justice fact sheet published by the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of white Americans. According to “Unlocking America”, a 2007 report from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, if African Americans and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rate as white Americans, the prison and jail populations would be cut in half.

LePage plays to racial fears among his overwhelmingly white electorate. His veiled references to protecting white women from black men are indeed both ignorant and hackneyed. But they are highly, viscerally effective in some quarters because they are so simplistic: Our troubles come from outside and not from within.

Our failed policies and their horrible consequences should be the real source of both our fear and outrage. But that would require us all to look at ourselves. Are we willing to do that?

Breaking the Ice: Laughter and Connection

The twenty something man, svelte and sinewy, stands in his underwear and turns to the camera to strike a few “macho” poses before leaping onto an ice-covered pond. The triumph of his plunge through the ice–and his fearless recovery as he emerges from the bone-numbing bath–will be used in his heavy metal band’s promotional video. His friends focus the camera and wait on tenterhooks as he readies himself. He leaps!

And then…he fails to break the ice. He slides across the ice in his skivvies. Once it’s clear that he’s not hurt, the man and his mates cannot control themselves. The video camera swings wildly as the cameraman tries to catch his breath between spasms of laughter. The underwear-clad macho man scoots back across the ice–like a preschooler wriggling on a rug–between his own fits of guffaws.

I discovered this fabulous clip while researching neuroscientist Dr. Sophie Scott’s work on laughter. Scott is a senior fellow at University College London and studies the neuroscience of speech and vocal behavior. In her TED Talk on why we laugh, referencing the work of Dr. Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, she explains that “you are 30 times more likely to laugh if you are with somebody else than if you’re on your own.”

We don’t laugh the most when we watch comedy routines or hear jokes; we laugh the most and the hardest when communicating with our friends and family. Scott asserts, “You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them…You’re doing all that at the same time as talking to them, and the laughter is doing a lot of that emotional work for you.” And it is enormously “behaviorally contagious.” We “catch” laughter from others more often if we know them.

Have you ever watched clips of Britain’s House of Commons? Some of the best ones are of sessions when the Prime Minister must come and face the grilling. Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown alike–we see politicians fiercely disagreeing–hurling some stinging zingers–but the hilarity and irreverence allows them to struggle with really big issues without either side disengaging from the debate. This engagement is sorely lacking within our own Congress. And it shows in the abysmal results.

Senator Dustin Degree (Republican from Franklin County) and I once duked it out on the floor of the Senate when it was a time to debate Same Day Voter Registration. I passionately supported the initiative, he was adamantly opposed. We both came prepared with facts, figures, details and broad context. He is a formidable opponent on any issue. He prepares carefully and understands the strategic maneuvers possible within the arcane Mason’s Rules. My argument won the day, though perhaps it was not my floor debate but the numbers: Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in the Senate.

But at a break in the action, we could still find common cause through humor. We came together and rapped the words of the 1979 classic tune, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.

We in the Senate tend towards “wonky” and impatient when faced with a legislative crockpot full of angst stew. We must remember that often laughter bridges the gap between people not argument. We face serious issues with real consequences for the lives of Vermonters; all votes and floor debates need to be weighed and considered most carefully. But when we lose our sense of humor, we forfeit an essential tool for effective collaboration.

In the midst of mourning

A dear friend’s dad passed away in December. I drove up to northern Vermont a few days before Christmas to attend the wake. I anticipated feeling somewhat awkward, as I always feel a bit odd in the presence of a corpse–albeit one dressed up and patted with makeup to appear dapper. But I did not anticipate the gift this ancient ritual offered.

When I first arrived, my friend gestured to the open casket and said, “That’s not the dad I knew. He didn’t look like that.” She encouraged me to go into the side parlor to see the slideshow of her dad that she and her siblings had put together. An avid hunter and fisherman, her father was seen in photo after photo posing with his catch or his bounty: trout, elk, deer, moose and even some more exotic fare like swordfish. I saw weathered boats, slouching hunting camps and dented cars and trucks–all whose sole purpose seemed to be allowing this man to commune with nature and wrestle sustenance from it.

The roses on the blonde wooden coffin were stunning, a crimson so bold and lush that they paired perfectly with the guttural French that burst in fits and starts from the gathered mourners: “Ah, oui! Tres bien!” This earthy French Canadian lilt belongs to hardscrabble farmers of Northern Vermont. It’s not the smooth tone of the cosmopolitan Parisians. The room pulsed with cackles and wisecracks. I overheard my friend commenting on her dad’s accident, “Well, he sure went out with a bang! That was fitting.”

I sat quietly and watched the customs and protocol. The children of the deceased, all dressed in black, lined up in front of their father’s coffin to welcome the guests. My friend looked intently as each mourner approached, and she’d reach back years, sometimes decades, to find a memory to which she could match the face before her. Once identified, she would fling her arms wide in greeting and then, post-hug, she’d offer the mourner to her sister, all the while explaining context and history.

They streamed in all evening–some in suits, some in sweats. A baby slept through all the commotion, another one practiced toddling on her unsure 9-month-old legs–her young father clearly grateful for the distraction. She gave him license to wander away from the casket and the conversations.

Because we are true friends and openly share both life’s wondrous quality and its bile, I know so much about her experience in this family. And because we are all flawed, and we all let loved ones down and disappoint and enrage, I accept there is always that which is not said–memories that will not be shared and conversations not swapped–not out of veneration for the dead, but out of deference for the living. Those left behind must fashion an understanding and acceptance of shortcomings; the controversies and conflicts will remain, to be sure, but the customs and ritual allow us to hold it all with an imperfect respect and honesty.

Yes, there were moments of uncertainty as to what to do or say, but I emerged from the wake with a much more complete sense of my friend, the family in which she grew up, and the culture that shapes and frames her life.

As I sat and watched the family, I caught a moment of stunning clarity: the three sisters all folded their arms and leaned casually in the same way–with hips slightly popped and chins cocked in an air of curiosity and irreverence. It was the ethereal and mystical quality of families captured in the midst of mourning.

Incident at Heart Mountain

There’s a stretch of highway in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming that passes by the site of a World War II era Japanese internment camp. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center–situated between the towns of Cody and Powell–held over 13,000 Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants between 1942-1945 and became the fourth biggest “town” in Wyoming.

From the grounds of the former camp, Heart Mountain looms on the horizon. When I lived in Powell and visited the site, I always thought of the cruel irony that the hopeful sounding “Heart Mountain” marked a heartless, dismal chapter in American history. Indescribably hot and dry in the summer and bitingly cold in the winter, it must have felt like a foreign country to those shipped from the Pomona, Santa Anita, and Portland assembly centers on the West Coast. But a remarkable friendship formed there in that harsh, windswept landscape.

Two preteen boys forged a bond that endures today: Norman Mineta–former U.S. House member and United States Transportation Secretary, who was interned at the camp–and Alan Simpson–former U.S. Senator from Wyoming who grew up in the nearby town of Cody–met through Boy Scouting activities arranged between locals and those in the detention center. Simpson saw “No Japs Allowed” signs in his hometown as he traveled to the detention center and passed by guard towers and barbed wire fences to attend a Scout Jamboree. Even in the midst of public bigotry and fear, there are always those courageous and clear eyed ones who see beyond the hurtful rhetoric. Simpson’s parents must have been cut from this cloth.

When a bill was introduced in 1988 to offer an apology and reparations to those Japanese Americans who had been locked up, both Mineta and Simpson were sponsors: a fitting testament to justice but also to their long friendship. The New York Times recently pointed out that some of the legislators who opposed that bill are still in office: Mitch McConnell and John McCain. Presidential candidate John Kasich also voted against it. Despite his own party’s opposition, President Reagan did sign it into law. And there are a few other surprises among the list of supporters of the bill–two of my least favorite politicians: Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney. (It is good and healthy for me to stretch my ideas about the measure of these men.)

Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson are often asked to tell the story of their friendship. It is at once both singular and unremarkable. Children–who live apart from the pressures of hyperbolic politics–find common cause wherever they can: Legos, miniature horse collections, soccer…or a Boy Scout Jamboree held at an internment camp. Where you come from is not nearly as compelling as where you’re going.

I imagine Mineta and Simpson will be asked more and more to recount their story, especially now that Donald Trump and other politicians have said, without irony or self-consciousness, that FDR had a great idea when he rounded up peaceful, innocent people en masse. Trump’s lackeys have forgotten–or never knew–that far from being a moment of valor, strength and leadership, the Japanese Internment program is a stark example of what happens when we give in to weakness and unbridled fear.

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”–Plato

Be the shamash

In this week of Hanukkah, a friend shared with me the words of Rabbi David Wolpe: “The shamash is the candle that lights the others. Be a shamash.” I was grateful for the reminder; Donald Trump’s fear-based rhetoric–and the adoring crowds that eagerly consume his dangerous messages–had cast a pall over my week. Another friend said to me yesterday, “I am not Jewish, but I love Hanukkah and all the holidays with light; I will take the light anywhere I can get it!” That is my goal this season: To find the light anywhere and everywhere I can and then to offer it to others for sustenance and solace. An important part of this process is to shine a light on darkness.

Donald Trump’s candidacy was a joke at first. Months ago, a friend shared a picture of the egomaniacal tycoon that likened his hair to the burst of corn silk at the end of a cob. I laughed and shared it with others. I am no longer chuckling. Nor am I sharing funny pictures of him. It is time to shine light on the darkness of his messages and acknowledge just how dangerous they are–not just to individuals but to a nation that cannot wear the mantle of “freedom loving” when we seek to limit freedom.

I have read pieces in the Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, Time, and Psychology Today which all explore whether or not the Republican frontrunner is a clinical narcissist. Jeffrey Kluger, author of the 2014 book “The Narcissist Next Door”, points out that Trump demonstrates many of the classic outward signs of narcissism: strutting, blustering, arm-waving, intolerance of criticism, and self-aggrandizing claims. But, Kluger asserts, a curious aspect of his popularity is that Trump is not talented at the emergent phase of an enterprise–something that many narcissists master. “There’s a charm, a charisma, and articulate energy that draws people in,” he explains.

Yet Trump has not demonstrated these qualities at all on the campaign trail–electing instead to mock a reporter with a disability and condone the “roughing up” of an African American man at one of his rallies. There hasn’t been a “honeymoon” phase that a voter can point to in an effort to explain her lapse of reason in supporting the larger-than-life New York wheeler and dealer. He has been boorish, overbearing and bullying from the beginning. What does this say about his supporters?

It’s impossible to look at his most recent proposal to block all Muslims from entering the U.S. without feeling like we’re laying the groundwork for collective scapegoating. Trump’s rhetoric hinges on the creation of “the other”: African Americans, immigrants, women and Muslims. He posits that answers are simple, fear should drive and shape policy, and anyone who disagrees is stupid and possibly dangerous. He delights in belittling and dismissing, and his supporters love him for it.

I know Trump’s antics–splashed bombastically across the media landscape–are hard to ignore and harder still to combat. Perhaps you feel at a loss to explain to a relative or neighbor just how awful you think his message is. But smaller scale statements beginning with “I,” make a difference. “I value my Muslim neighbors.” Let’s challenge ourselves in this time of darkness to shine light on our own behaviors that seek to divide. Resist the urge to “group” people; let go of petty disagreements; try listening deeply instead of trying to win an argument. We know what has happened in Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda and in so many other places where fear and distrust grew voracious and grisly. Be the shamash.

A Vermonter in Doha

Each day a friend posts captivating and poignant photos online from her home in Doha, Qatar. She documents both her mundane and wondrous experiences there, and those of us on the other side of the globe get a feast for our eyes and spirits. School for International Training graduates, she and her spouse have lived and worked for NGOs in far flung reaches of the planet for over a decade. But this is the first time she has fully embraced her skill and grace with photography and put her pictures on social media for daily consumption and reflection. It is one of my favorite parts of my day: visiting Doha with a touch of a button.

Another friend is in Abu Dhabi with her sons this week; they are forgoing tangible presents in exchange for experiences this holiday season. She works for a non-partisan think tank in D.C., although I met her at the Women’s Campaign School at Yale. Through her snapshots and online posts, I have visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and seen her sons’ delight as they watched the lights dance in the mosque’s reflecting pool. We have shared many parenting experiences together through our posts and messages on Facebook over the years. She, an African American mom, who lives in our nation’s bustling capital, and I, a caucasian mom in one of the nation’s whitest and most rural states, feel grateful for the window we have into each other’s lives.

At 47, I am not a millennial nor am I a technology native. When I started college, I was still composing my term papers on an IBM Selectric II typewriter–which I just learned is listed as “vintage” on ebay. Thanks for that, ebay. I also was decidedly not an “early adopter” of social media. My older sister and I would often joke about how there were a lot of folks–past loves, for example–that we were happy to keep at a distance; we didn’t need to make it any easier for them to track us down. “If I wanted to be in touch with them,” she laughed, “they’d already have my contact information!”

But I relented when I started to see its usefulness in shrinking the world for me. When the planet becomes smaller, less scary and more accessible–both emotionally and psychologically–we can become more compassionate and understanding citizens of the world.

When many Republican governors–and a few Democrats, too–called for shutting Syrian refugees out of our immigration process, despite that the vetting process for those fleeing war in Syria currently takes about two years, I took to social media for solace, context and support. And then Donald Trump said he’d support a database to track all Muslims; Ben Carson likened Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. And Jeb Bush suggested we only admit Christians from Syria. I posted about my own family’s immigration story, and encouraged others to do the same. Soon I had a long string of American immigration and refugee stories posted from friends and acquaintances. It is a simple–but direct–action to change the narrative about what it means to be an American.

There is a photo from Doha that my buddy posted last week that continues to resonate with me. It is a cityscape in relief at sunset; the buildings are black against an exquisite cadmium-colored sky. The sun looks weary, heavy from the day. As I write, from my home on South Main in Brattleboro, I watch the sun, bright with promise, tug itself above Wantastiquet Mountain, the landscape in dark relief. It is the same sun.

The women leaders of Cameroon

The email inquiry came out of the blue with a request I couldn’t turn down. Would I be willing to meet with a group of female politicians from Cameroon? The place and time were not convenient, but I still jumped at the chance. These women leaders traveled to Vermont as part of a U.S. State Department trip that brought them to several U.S. states. As we sat around a conference table in Burlington, along with two talented French language translators, I delighted in the exchange of hearts and minds, and I marveled at the idea that they came to learn from us when the work they are doing is simply amazing.

Cameroon is a coastal central African nation on the western side of the continent. Home to 230 languages–although French and English are its official languages–it sits in the Bight of Biafra and is bordered by Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Gabon and tiny Equatorial Guinea. When I taught social studies, I once wrote a song about the African continent to help students remember that it is, in fact, the world’s second most populous continent–and not a country, despite erroneous ad copy and hackneyed sitcom dialogue. There’s a lot we don’t understand about the struggles–and strengths–of the 54 African nations.

My visit with the Cameroonian legislators happened in the week preceding the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. If the timing had been different, we perhaps would have discussed Boko Haram and not other issues. The sociopathic terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State has gotten a lot of press this year, but Boko Haram has killed more people. As I sit down to write this, Boko Haram has been blamed for more suicide bombings in markets in Nigeria and Cameroon last week. According to reports, one of the bombers was an 11 year old girl. There is no limit to Boko Haram’s depravity.

This jihadist group has terrorized Nigerians and the citizens of neighboring nations since 2002, as it tries to establish a state based on sharia law. Its zealots killed 6,600 human beings last year alone. Now they are making more incursions into Cameroon, Chad and Niger, targeting young people to recruit for its terrorist activities. Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in Chibok in April of 2014, which drew international condemnation. Some of the schoolgirls managed to escape, but it is believed that most have been sold into slavery, married off to Boko Haram fighters or killed.

It is truly perilous to be an educated female in areas in which Boko Haram operates. When my colleagues in Cameroon show up for their work in the National Assembly they are literally risking their necks.

Our problems in Vermont are not insignificant, and we will face another daunting budget gap when we return to Montpelier in January. Poverty, hunger, rising healthcare costs, workforce challenges, the scourge of opiate addiction, unaffordable housing–these, and many other pressing issues, will all demand our attention. As legislators, we will do our best to find solutions that will make meaningful improvements in people’s lives. We will work long, long hours and we will sometimes–encouraged by constituents–veer into grandstanding in attempts to get the attention of others who will help us further our agendas. But I will not look at Vermont politics the same way now that I have met with these remarkable Cameroonian women.

As we shared our experiences of being women involved in politics, and I looked deeply at the faces before me, I kept thinking, “This is what courage looks like.”