Beloit Goes to Montpelier
What are the odds that five Beloit College alumni would find themselves settled more than 1,000 miles from campus at the Vermont State House, representing their fellow Vermonters as they cast votes on the most important issues of the day?
“That’s a high per capita,” notes Elizabeth Cornell Burrows’91, who joined the Vermont House of Representatives in 2020.
Rep. Michelle Bossard Bos-Lun’87 first stumbled on a Beloit connection after reading about Burrows on the state legislature’s website. Curt Taylor’72, in the Vermont House since 2016, discovered that Bos-Lun was a Beloiter through her legislative profile. Taylor and Rep. Marty Dyer Feltus’68 already knew one another. Some recalled yet another Beloiter: former state representative and pioneering organic farmer Will Stevens’77.
Their political affiliations span Democrat, Republican, and independent, but they all share a common call to service.
Advocating for justice and equity
As an anthropology major, Elizabeth Cornell Burrows’91 wrote an ethnography about the homeless population in Seattle. That curiosity about the world around her — especially those who have historically been underserved — still fuels her today.
“I’ve always been fascinated by people’s stories and helping people, and being a legislator is exactly that. It’s really understanding people’s communities and what can be done to enable the agency of others,” says Burrows, who worked briefly for a human rights organization in Prague.
But she never envisioned running for public office until something seemed off about public reactions to a local, racially motivated incident. As school board chair, she pushed her local school district to adopt implicit bias training for people coming into contact with students throughout their day. When that failed, she moved on to lobbying her state legislator to mandate the training statewide. When her representative decided not to seek re-election, he invited Burrows to run for the open seat — just as Covid-19 hit the United States.
“I am a ‘run toward danger person’ in general, and initially I saw all these possibilities that were opened up by the pandemic,” she says. “I thought, ‘Surely now people will see the need for family paid leave, for universal health care, and the importance of everyday workers.’”
Then George Floyd’s murder hit the news, and because of public interest in inclusion and justice, Burrows saw an opening for her own longstanding interest in racial justice “to take more of a front seat,” she says.
Burrows, who currently sits on the House Committee on Health Care, is particularly proud of her work with the legislature’s Social Equity Caucus. “We are working on changing how we legislate so that when bills are drafted, they will include initial analysis through an equity and justice lens applied at the drafting stage — surprisingly, there are no other states doing that,” she says. “It hasn’t gone fully into effect yet, but that’s actual structural change. I’m really excited about that.”
She was also proud to vote in favor of the last step of a proposed amendment to the state constitution — bringing it to a public vote — that will enshrine reproductive rights for all Vermonters if it passes this fall. Big change requires hard work by a lot of people. But it starts when each person responds to their own call. “Part of being in the legislature is showing what one person can do,” Burrows says. “In a state this small, there’s a lot that one person can do.”
Managing the state budget
Martha “Marty” Feltus’68 got her political start as a freelance newspaper reporter, covering the select board (town council) and planning commission meetings for her tiny Vermont town. When a seat on the select board opened, a board member suggested she run, since she was already at all the meetings anyway.
Years later, after Feltus retired from her nine-to-five job at an electrical technology company, she decided to run for state legislature. “I wanted to see it from the other side because working at the town level, you interact with the state,” she says. “It was just a general interest in how state government works, how to make it reasonable for everyone, and at a price tag we can afford.”
She won her seat in 2012 and has served on the House Committee on Appropriations, along with the Working Group on Water Quality Funding and other committees. She advocates for the needs of small rural communities like hers and is especially proud of her work on the state budget.
“I found that very rewarding because you see an overview of all the activities of the state,” she says. “You have to determine how you’re going to spend the money that you have, and you have a limited amount of money coming in the door. There have been years when we wanted to spend more on the opioid problem, other years on the justice system, other years when higher education needed a boost. It was rewarding and enlightening. There were a lot of things that I didn’t realize we did as a state, and it would be like, ‘Geez, do we really need to do that?’”
Years ago, Feltus wasn’t convinced about the need for public access to broadband — even though internet access was a problem in much of largely rural Vermont. “In the beginning, I kind of pooh-poohed it and said, ‘Why does anyone need the internet?’ But my opinion on it changed over time,” she says. “I was on the committee that made sure that got into the budget. It’s doing the legislative work to make it possible and then finding the money. Our goal is to have universal broadband to every address in the state by 2025.”
This term, which ends January 2023, will be her last. “It’s been 10 years — that’s a good stint,” she says. “I’m 76 years old, and it’s time to retire and get some younger people involved.” But she plans to stay involved where she first got started — in town government.
Working for justice reform
When Curt Taylor’72 goes on vacation, he squeezes in an unusual stop. “I’ve visited prisons all over the United States,” he says. “Anywhere we go, I try to visit the prison.”
Taylor, who serves on the Corrections and Institutions Committee, sees it as part of his homework. “It’s always good to have some on-the-ground experience. When I tour the facilities, I pick up things that I wouldn’t just sitting in committee,” he says.
Before politics, Taylor worked in jobs ranging from elementary school teacher to newspaper reporter to dairy farm hand. He later earned a degree in computer science and, after retiring from his job as a database programmer, decided to run for state legislature. The former school board member ran close races twice before ultimately winning his seat in 2016.
“I’ve always been interested in politics and how decisions are made,” says Taylor, who majored in political science and philosophy. “I’m unable to complain about something unless I’m willing to do something about it or unless I really understand the issues.”
And that’s how he’s found himself learning more about the prison system. While the pace of government projects can be slow, he hopes to see three capital projects reach completion: a new women’s corrections facility, a mental health facility for patients who are ready to “step down” to a lower level of psychiatric care, and a juvenile facility for both corrections and mental health.
Taylor digs into the nuts-and-bolts details: Where should a new facility be, who should be in it, what should it look like? He calls the Department of Corrections for updates so often that the commissioner of corrections once asked him: “Why do you care so much?”
“It’s because the current system is so inefficient,” Taylor explains. “It’s wasteful that we have women and men in facilities when their particular needs do not require razor-wire fences and cinder-block walls and loud clanging doors.”
“We’re paying $50,000-$60,000 a year to keep someone in a prison. But the emphasis now in community organizations is to help people overcome their drug addiction, to manage their anger, to get a job, which gets them back into society, which is considerably less expensive than locking them up and monitoring them 24/7. So the most efficient way is also the best way to rehabilitate people. And it bothers me that we can’t do that.”
But Taylor isn’t giving up anytime soon.
Supporting youth in need
Michelle Bos-Lun’87 (formerly Michelle Bossard) has been passionate about improving youths’ lives since she was a youth herself — she regularly volunteered at a local orphanage as a teenager living in Taiwan. Her interest continued with her first post-college job working with Lakota students in South Dakota, and she later planned and led cultural exchanges that brought American youth abroad and welcomed students from places like Iraq and Belarus to American communities. She also worked in youth housing and career development in Vermont.
“I’ve always been a person who has been pretty deeply engaged in my community, and when I saw something that wasn’t working, I tried to find a way to make it better,” says Bos-Lun, who is co-director of the Bihar Education Change Foundation (B.E. Change), a nonprofit that provides food and other support to children at two schools in rural India.
As Bos-Lun spoke up at rallies around gun violence in schools and the plight of refugee children at the U.S. border, people urged her to run for the state legislature. She won in 2020 and took office on Jan. 6, 2021.
She still tears up remembering the testimony about a controversial bill to extend a program, initially funded by federal Covid relief funds, that provides free meals at schools statewide. Signed into law by the governor in May, the bill will extend universal school meals for breakfast and lunch for one year. Efforts will be underway in the next session to try to make this law permanent.
“We got a lot of feedback from teachers and administrators that the free lunch program was extraordinarily helpful in both destigmatizing those who previously had qualified for free or reduced price lunch and giving access to food to students who hadn’t qualified before but who needed it,” Bos-Lun says. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to continue it.”
She’s also interested in expanding school restorative justice programs, which focus on building relationships in response to student behavior problems.
She hopes to continue her previous work on a bill around building positive school culture. “In the broadest sense, it’s about supporting students from diverse backgrounds,” she says.
“LGBTQ students and students of color are experiencing bullying from other students, and it’s not OK. And we need to figure out, as a state, how we can do better.”
Protecting food and farms
After Beloit, Will Stevens’77 found himself in the Adirondack Mountains in New York, “living a hermit’s life in the woods.” He figured he’d leave society alone if society would leave him alone. Then a fellow Beloiter asked him a question that would change his life: “What about the gifts you can bring to the community?”
The question unearthed seeds first planted during Stevens’ childhood — when his mother held local office and politics were a common dinnertime topic.
Attracted by the “neighbor to neighbor governance” of Vermont, he settled in a small town and started an organic farming business while also getting involved in town government. When his longtime state representative stepped down, Stevens decided to step up.
“I wanted to continue that commitment to Vermont governance as a citizen legislator,” he says. “I wanted to represent this district to the best of my ability and represent the values that attracted me to the state.”
He served from 2007-14 and was ranking member of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee — bringing his in-the-field experience as a successful farmer and past president of Vermont Organic Farmers.
One of his favorite legislative initiatives was Farm to Plate, a comprehensive plan of the state’s food system “with the goal of getting more Vermont-grown foods into Vermont kitchens,” he says. It soon became a model for other states. In addition, Stevens helped pass one of the nation’s first bills requiring GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling on food packages, though federal legislation soon prohibited states from labeling GMOs.
Stevens is also proud of his work with the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, which created a fund that invests in Vermont’s agricultural and forestry-based businesses to preserve the state’s working landscape.
While Stevens’ time with the state legislature is over, he’s still answering the call to serve in other ways. Now he’s the elected moderator (town official who runs public meetings) for Shoreham, Vermont. He is also an outreach representative for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, with a focus on agriculture, workforce development, hunger and nutrition, and rural vitality. “This feeds my public service itch,” Stevens says. “I can be out there in the community, being Bernie’s eyes and ears, listening to the issues, and trying to make a difference.”
Nicole Sweeney Etter is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor.