This week’s Friday Feature is with long time educator and Emerge Vermont alum Martha Allen. Martha grew up in a town in Massachusetts with an excellent school district—something she says greatly influenced her desire to want to be a teacher. Although she always knew she wanted to be a teacher, a job as a teenager cemented her love for children. Martha was a babysitter in her teen years and made lifelong connections with those kids. That ability to form mutual bonds with the kids she watched over as a teen translated into her successful and long career as a teacher. Her connection to Vermont is through her great grandparents, and summers spent with them made her fall in love with the state. Her goal was to make it back to Vermont to pursue a career in teaching, and she did just that. For 30 years, Martha worked as an educator in a number of towns in Vermont for 1st graders, 3rd graders, 7th graders, and eventually as a K-12 librarian.
She is also no stranger to getting involved on committees and boards related to the education system. Through her teaching, she got involved with the teacher’s union and served as her community’s Secretary Treasurer. After working her way towards being the President of her local union, Martha was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Vermont National Education Association and eventually was elected as President of the Vermont NEA in 2009. The Vermont NEA is the largest union in the state and their mission is to support and represent teachers and support staff like cafeteria workers and classroom assistants. She served as the President until 2018 as an advocate for improving working conditions and protecting the interests of public education. This meant being a voice in the legislature, meeting with administrators, and ensuring that money that was directed towards public schools got where it needed to be. At the heart of her job was advocating for the well-being and equity of children of all races and from all different geographical areas.
At the national level, Martha served as a representative in Washington, D.C. for the Vermont public education system. Her and one other team member would meet with other state’s representatives to discuss national education. When asked how Vermont’s education system compares with other states in the country, Martha was confident in the state’s ability to stand up against any other state in the nation. “I’ve been so proud of Vermont over the years because we—as a state—value quality education,” she said. “Education has been at the forefront of communities as we try to provide what’s best for the people living there.” One challenge, she said, that the state faces is the declining influx of a younger population. Compared to 50 years ago, there just aren’t as many families and people with school-aged children moving to Vermont. In order to attract more young people to make the move, we must start with great school systems. Martha is confident that the best way to face the decline in student enrollment is to take on the challenge head on. Given the circumstances now, Martha speculates that the impact of COVID-19 might actually do just that. In the age of coronavirus, people no longer want to live in densely-populated and urban areas. The abundance of space and nature that Vermont has to offer might bring people to make the switch to more rural living in the years to come.
As a graduate of the class of 2020, Martha is well-equipped for her upcoming election for State Representative. She said that the Emerge training program got her into the Statehouse in a way that made her and her classmates more comfortable in that setting. She also said that meeting women from all around the state from a number of backgrounds and age groups gave her new perspectives. As the President of the Vermont NEA for almost a decade, Martha was no stranger to public speaking and advocating for others. However, she said, it’s another story when it comes to advocating for yourself. This is a common thread among women I speak with for the Friday Feature, where finding the voice to promote yourself and your contributions does not come as naturally as advocating for other people.
As our conversation went on, it became more and more apparent that Martha is the type of person who—when faced with an opportunity to speak up for others and make a change in her community—jumps at it. Her various roles on boards and committees is impressive to say the least, so for this reason I asked Martha what advice she would give to women who want to get involved, but don’t know where to start. To this she replied, “Get to know you community. If you want to be involved in politics in your community, get to know all the people, not just the ones who might be in your political party.” She also emphasized the importance of looking at the state as a whole rather than having a micro-view of just your community and how that can be a game changer when it comes to making informed decisions.
As a parting question, I wanted to circle back to Martha’s time as an educator and get her insight on how Covid has changed the dialogue surrounding the importance of education. I asked her why it is important that we keep education at the forefront of the conversation when we’re discussing the impacts of pandemic, and her response captured possibly what made her such an amazing teacher during her 30-year career. Martha’s foremost concern is about how times of isolation make the disparities among children in varying classes and races even more apparent. I could hear in the tone of her voice when speaking about how a lack of structured education can lead to neglect, abuse, and insecurity relating to food and resources that her passions lie in keeping the interests of children at the core of her work. This notion of public education as a great equalizer no longer applies when schools and classrooms are taken out of the equation. Even though she’s no longer a teacher, the way she talks about the discrepancies and insecurities faced by children during this time makes it apparent why she succeeded in that career in the first place. Martha always has the interests of children at heart. Her dedication to equity and equality is certainly a characteristic of any good educator, but her ability to couple that with an outspoken voice is what makes her a remarkable representative.
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.