Orchestrating change: Meet Gabrielle Stebbins, running for State Rep in Burlington’s South End

  • Jul 20, 2020
  • Halle Newman

This land was made for you and me.

This past Independence Day, Gabrielle Stebbins, a resident of South Burlington, took out her violin and recorded herself playing Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Stebbins’ rendition is almost melancholy, with a slow, soulful feel. She slides her bow across the strings, the warm timbre leaving notes hanging in the air. 

Stebbins, a 2020 Emerge alumna, is running for State Representative this election season. Aside from being a former professional violinist, Stebbins currently serves as the Chair of the Burlington Electric Commission and as a Senior Consultant at Energy Futures Group. She is also  a member of the Policy Makers Council of the American Public Power Commission, and the Vice Chair of the Chittenden County Democratic Committee. Stebbins is a mother to a three year old and a ten year old. Still, she makes time to run for office.

“You just keep pushing; you just keep focusing on reaching people and spreading your positive message,” Stebbins said in an interview with Emerge Vermont, cup of coffee in hand. 

Stebbins is a first time candidate, and decided to run for office after Representative Mary Sullivan called her up on the phone, and persuaded Stebbins to think about running. 

“Women have to be asked seven times to run, and guys wake up and say, ‘oh, I guess I’ll run for president,’” Stebbins said, paraphrasing a lecture from her Emerge training. 

“Typically, women expect that they have to be near perfection [in politics] and they feel like they’re never good enough,” Stebbins said, reflecting on her time with Emerge. “It’s really helpful to hear all these bright, smart, successful women reinforce the fact that yeah, you’re going to feel that way: push on through.”

“Pushing on through” in the era of COVID, however, requires creativity.  

“To be a good campaigner, you need to capture peoples’ imaginations and do it in a very short time frame,” Stebbins said. She’s paraded through the Five Sisters neighborhood, spoken at socially-distanced events, and posted a white board in front of her house for voters to write down questions and concerns. 

Stebbins’ two children pose in front of a whiteboard for voters. //Photo: Gabrielle Stebbins

Stebbins and fellow Emerge Alumna, Tiff Bluemle, parade around their neighborhood with campaign signs. // Photo: Gabrielle Stebbins

“My greatest challenge is that there might be a maximum of 15 people currently in the House who have kids under 18, and I am the only candidate out of five in this district who has a three year old,” Stebbins said. “It just requires incredible time management… but moms are pretty good at that.”

Stebbins has five years of experience working as an environmental lobbyist in the Statehouse, and says she is ready to hit the ground running as a legislator. She is particularly interested in creating holistic policies that address problems that Vermonters – and our planet- face.

“[Vermont] sends 1.5 billion dollars a year out of state on fossil fuels for heating and driving. We could take that 1.5 billion and figure out creative financing approaches to training thousands of Vermonters in livable wage jobs,” Stebbins explained. “That will help people be able to pay their energy bills more, use less energy, and make a difference on the climate.”

Stebbins also spoke about the importance of addressing hardships that Vermonters of color face. 

“Oftentimes, people of color have a harder time accessing loans; can they buy a house as easily? Can they start a business as easily? Can they go to school as easily?” Stebbins posed. She also suggested changes to the education system to ensure that Vermont children learn about racism and race-related historical events. “We need to think, again, [about] integrated, comprehensive and holistic [approaches to] these challenges. Yes, we need law enforcement and criminal justice reform – but it’s even broader and deeper than those two areas.”

Stebbins believes her big-picture style of thinking stems from her experience as a musician. For twenty years, she travelled the world playing violin.

“I played with people who [couldn’t] speak the same language, but we [could] play music together. I’ve had to learn how to lead an orchestra, but then also follow, and be in the back of the section,” Stebbins said. “When you’re in an orchestra with 100 people and then you have a choir behind you that’s 80 people, it’s kind of the size of the House.”

Like running a campaign or being a legislator, music requires discipline, creativity, and collaboration. It also requires a person to see how all the parts of something work together; to know how the distinct sounds of strings, woodwinds, and brass can collide in harmony. 

Stebbins uses her toddler’s toy car to deliver campaign information to voters. // Photo: Gabrielle Stebbins

Still, whether it be through suggestion whiteboards or violin serenades, politicians and musicians alike must hold their own outside of legislatures and concert halls. Their messages must resonate.

For the final verse of Stebbins’ virtual performance of This Land is Your Land, she puts the bow by her side and rests the violin on her shoulder. She looks into the eye of the camera, and sings. 

In the square of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, I walked by my people, by the relief office; as they stood there hungry, I’m asking: is this land made for you and me?

Emerge is so proud of all the work Stebbins is doing, and we cannot wait to see what she will do next! If music be the food of politics, play on. 

Read more about Gabrielle Stebbins at: www.stebbinsforvt.com