Vanessa Kittell: Blazing a trail From Capitol Hill to rural Vermont

  • Apr 24, 2020
  • Lindsay Williams

A born and raised Vermonter, our feature for this week followed her passions all around the country, but she eventually returned to her home state to be an advocate for the people of Vermont. From the West coast, to the waters of Alaska, all the way to our nation’s capital in Washington D.C., Vanessa Kittell truly embodies the qualities of a determined and passionate woman. 

From an early age, Vanessa had her sights set on being a representative and an advocate for the truth. At 13 years old, Vanessa got her first taste of politics in her role as a Gubernatorial page to then Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin. As a young correspondent, Vanessa observed what was going on in her community and wrote about it to her local paper. When retelling this time in her life during our conversation, Vanessa used the term “cheeky” to describe her younger self. She picked up on discrepancies in what state officials were advocating for versus what they were doing in practice, and she was not afraid to call them out on it. Vanessa says that much of what motivated her in those early years was encouragement from her mother to speak up for what she believed in. Having that support system ultimately allowed her to thrive in her multiple roles as a representative throughout her career. Fast forwarding a few years, Vanessa moved across the country to attend university at Reed College in Oregon. It was there when Vanessa cemented the idea of education as a great equalizer, and this sparked something in her to turn her education into a service for others. This took form in the shape of law school, and Vanessa earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania with the hopes of being an attorney. In the time between her undergraduate and law degrees, however, Vanessa did some pretty remarkable things. 

After she graduated from Reed, Vanessa worked on fishing boats in Kodiak, Alaska and then she moved East to work on the hill in Washington D.C. for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, bringing the lessons of hard work and diverse experience to life.  Following her time on Capitol Hill,Vanessa earned an appointment in the Clinton administration, serving as a speechwriter for Donna Shalala, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.  She recalls the energy of being surrounded by people with similar ideologies that shared in the passion and urgency to develop policies focused on our nation’s public health—work that would make a real difference in the lives of people across the country.  One memory she holds particularly close is the speech she wrote for Secretary Shalala and former First Lady Hillary Clinton for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup.  In addition to a symbol of female empowerment, Vanessa says that the fact that the U.S. team was a powerhouse and won the World Cup, shattering expectations for women’s sports, put into focus what she was doing and why it mattered. As a reminder of that, Vanessa still keeps a token of that game on her desk. 

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, with a J.D. in law and a Masters in Bioethics, Vanessa returned to her home state of Vermont to practice law.  She began as a Vermont Trial Court law clerk in 2006.  During that time, the judges she worked with encouraged that the heart of good advocacy was being a good person and that requires making a life of action and engagement with family, friends, and community. Vanessa took that to heart and found ways to join her practice of law with living in rural Vermont, raising a family and service on local boards.  

In 2014, Emerge Vermont launched its first six-month signature program under the leadership of former Governor Madeleine Kunin. With her former gubernatorial page in mind, Madeleine Kunin reached out and encouraged Vanessa to enroll. Vanessa’s class set the precedent for what our Emerge Sisterhood has become. She described her classmates as “fearless,” “funny,” and “whip smart”—qualities that made many of her classmates excellent candidates down the road. “I found my tribe,” she said when describing the connection she made with her Emerge class. Although the alumni are approaching their sixth year since they went through their training together, Vanessa says that there is still a sensibility of solidarity, support and pride.  “Nothing matters more than to know that we’re here, that we’ve got each other’s back, and that we’re only getting stronger as we see more and more of our Emerge family across Vermont and beyond.”  

In the same year as her Emerge Vermont training, Vanessa established her own law practice in St. Albans. During her time in the Vermont State Trial Court, she knew that she wanted to pursue a career as a trial lawyer, and she’s done just that. Her practice focuses on representing injured Vermonter. As far as her plans to run for office, Vanessa says that she hopes to take on that role one day. Leadership takes shape in many forms, and starting a business might just be the most difficult of them all. So for now, Vanessa will continue to be an active member in her community while at the same time shaking up what it looks like to be a woman in politics.

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.