Over the past six months, I’ve had the chance to speak with a number of remarkable and influential women who have completed the Emerge program. Although my time as an intern with Emerge Vermont is ending, I hope that the stories of these women continue to be heard and shared for others to see. For my 20th and final Friday Feature, I had the pleasure of speaking with Katherine Sims from the Emerge Vermont class of 2016. As Katherine prepares for her upcoming election for the Vermont House of Representatives, we discussed what got her to this moment and what kind of voice she hopes to be for the people of the Orleans-Caledonia district.
Katherine’s introduction to Vermont began in 2001 when she made the move from Massachusetts to the Northeast Kingdom to work on a farm. She gained insight on the inner workings of food growth and production, and learned from pioneers in the organic farming industry. As with many people who are drawn to Vermont for its landscape and relatively simple lifestyle, Katherine discovered that the people were really the ones who made the place so special. “I moved up here for a job but what I discovered was so much more than that—I found this incredible community,” she said. She fell in love with the area and knew it was a place she’d call home. Overtime, she discovered that even though Vermont is a place with abundant opportunities, there were still some persistent challenges that many community members faced. Foremostly, food access issues. Katherine decided to take things into her own hands and start a school gardening program to get kids connected to agriculture and learn about healthy foods. What started as a “fun, after school activity” grew into a successful nonprofit. In addition to educating thousands of kids and building school gardens across the region, Green Mountain Farm-to-School is dedicated to farm viability by creating new markets for farmers via their food hubs. During her 10 years as the founder and director of GMFTS, Katherine’s vision came to life as the relationship of children, schools, and communities to their food sources strengthened.
After a long and transformative tenure in that role, Katherine moved on to be the Director of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative. Their mission is to think more broadly about issues of economic development in the region and focus on how to “make a Vermont that works for everybody.” In her third year as the Director of the NEKC, Katherine strives to bring people together and create positive change for the communities and families that live there. They’re particularly active on issues relating to Broadband access and supporting the outdoor recreation economy. With the interests of Vermonters always at the forefront of the conversation, Katherine and the NEKC take a thoughtful and informed approach to progressing economic and community development in the Northeast Kingdom.
In keeping with that passion to enact positive change for Vermont and Vermonters, Katherine is running for State Representative for the Orleans-Caledonia district. Her top priorities focus on creating a space where Vermonters feel represented, supported, and heard by the people making decisions. First, she’s focused on strengthening the local economy. This takes the shape of supporting investment in infrastructure and downtown areas. Second, Katherine is dedicated to supporting working Vermonters. This means increasing access to affordable child care, housing, and paid family and medical leave. These “key supports” allow Vermonters to work and support their families simultaneously, without having to choose one over the other. One of the main challenges baring a growing economy in that region is the lack of access to high speed internet. One of Katherine’s top priorities is to increase that access and ensure that the Northeast Kingdom has all the tools it needs to support a growing economy.
After an introduction to Emerge Vermont by former Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, Katherine completed the Emerge signature training program and graduated with the class of 2016. A few years later—and in preparation for her upcoming election—Katherine decided to complete the weekend-long Candidate Boot Camp. She says that the organization has been invaluable both for the toolkit it provided, and even more for the network of women she’s connected with. “[Politics] can feel lonely and isolating and it’s hard work to be up there as a candidate. Having a support system of women who have done the program or are doing it now has been really invaluable and makes me feel supported in this work.” The campaign trail has been completely uprooted this year, and what was going to be a “summer of door knocking” has turned into outreach via social media and virtual house parties in an effort to connect with voters. Katherine’s also getting creative on the campaign trail and hopes to do socially distant pop-up meet and greets as the election gets closer.
One thing Covid-19 has revealed is the ingenuity of people, but even more so it’s exposed many of the inequalities that have existed for a long time in our communities. This pandemic, “creates an opportunity to reevaluate—in a systematic way—what’s been working in our communities and what hasn’t. If we can seize it, this is a big opportunity to make some changes to help Vermont work for everyone.”
When we talk about making Vermont an inclusive place, this of course entails making sure that those in power and those setting policy really represent our communities and the diversity within them. Women play an enormous role in bringing those underrepresented voices to the table, and Katherine thinks that it’s essential for female voices to be heard “so that decisions are informed by lived experience.” As a word of advice to women who see themselves entering the political sphere, Katherine says that “There’s no right timeline.” Many introductions to community work and involvement happen organically, and it’s important to seize opportunities that present themselves. There’s no such thing as “too early” or “too late” when it comes to getting involved, and perhaps the most important piece of advice is to not wait to be asked. Katherine saw room for growth in her community all those years ago when she started the after school gardening program, and it led her down a path of reform and positive change for those around her. That drive is not slowing down anytime soon, and I look forward to seeing how she continues to be a voice for the state of Vermont.
Emerge has one goal: To increase the number of Democratic women in office who are reflective of the incredible diversity of the Democratic party by recruiting, training and providing a powerful network.