Chickens, railroad crossings, and origin stories

  • Dec 9, 2021
  • Elaine Haney

Yesterday Facebook shared a long-forgotten memory with me. Back in 2008, I cryptically posted that I was “preparing for a big presentation before the Village Trustees tomorrow.” ​​If I recall correctly, this presentation was about creating a new local ordinance that would legalize having backyard chickens.

I am not a chicken person. But my then-10-year-old daughter, who desperately wanted them, indignantly informed me that our village didn’t allow backyard chickens. Then I met some residents who also wanted chickens. We did some research, drafted an ordinance, and presented it to our Trustees, who eventually passed it. Now those residents have chickens, as do dozens of others. (We didn’t get any chickens—that’s another story!) It was my first foray into local government, and the start of my political life.

Emerge Vermont’s founder, former Governor Madeleine M. Kunin, has a similar political origin story. Hers involves train tracks near her home that did not have a railroad crossing signal or even a sign. She worried about the safety of children and drivers in her neighborhood. Installing at least a sign could prevent a tragedy. Her first political act—though she didn’t really think of it as political, it was more just common sense—was to advocate for a crossing signal.

Governor Kunin describes her entry into public service in her autobiography Living a Political Life. Her story is compelling because it shows how simply taking the initiative to solve a problem can snowball. Small successes can build upon each other until suddenly you realize that you have made a big difference in your community, and that you are, in fact, a leader. Governor Kunin’s experience, and my chicken experience, prove that the saying “all politics is local” is really true.

Even though our political journeys started out similarly, they diverged greatly. Governor Kunin went on to serve in the Vermont Legislature before becoming only the second woman Lieutenant Governor in Vermont history, and our first (and so far only) woman Governor. She then went on to become the US Deputy Secretary of Education and Ambassador to Switzerland. 

As for me, after the chicken experience, I decided to run for a seat on the Village Board of Trustees. I won, and was re-elected twice. Then I won a seat on my town selectboard, and eventually became chair. I hope to run for higher office someday. And it all started with chickens.

Now it’s my full-time job to recruit and train women to run for office at every level of government. But those local offices—that’s where you can have the most immediate impact. That’s where you can see firsthand the results of your work: from the quality of your children’s schools to the popularity of your community pool to knowing your town has a crackerjack public works crew that can handle a snowy winter. 

Women know what their communities need, and they’re not afraid to advocate, work, and organize to solve those problems. They’re amazing leaders and politicians already, maybe without even realizing it. And right now, through their local public service, they’re writing their own origin stories.

I like thinking that politicians, like superheroes, have origin stories. I imagine myself and Governor Kunin, fists on our hips, standing on a mountain overlooking Vermont, our capes gently flapping in the breeze. Hers has a railroad crossing sign on it. Mine has a chicken on it. And we are both smiling with pride.