I’d like to tell a story I’ve never told in print before. I’ve written hundreds of policy-oriented pieces for local and national newspapers — including the Rutland Herald, regarding Vermont-specific policy — but I’ve never told this story because it’s very personal. I’m telling it now because I want everyone to know what guides me and directs my work. This traumatic experience built the foundation for everything I do now.
The story regards my childhood. I was 8. And my dad, who was born with a hole in his heart, had a stroke that severely impaired his ability to speak and write. He couldn’t talk to us anymore. Our speech therapist gave mom, me and my siblings ways to help him improve his speaking and writing. All of us were on therapy duty. I’d sit there with my dad, helping him to write my name, Mike. Dad would try to scribble it on paper. I remember how it looked. It looked like a 5-year-old’s writing. It’s one of the most vivid and deeply painful memories I have of him. He died a year later from heart failure.
Long before the stroke, I was already feeling super protective of my dad. He wasn’t a symbol of physical strength. He was often bedridden, with an oxygen tank beside his bed, or was at the hospital for tests. He’d have to layer up with blankets and winter wear before going outside on a summer day because of poor circulation. It was impossible not to feel protective. He was weak. I and my siblings needed to be strong.
I share this story because that exact moment — when, as an 8-year-old, I’m helping my 39-year-old dad write my name — shaped my outlook on life and how I apply myself to this world. My dad — a preacher and a big believer of the biblical principle that “whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me” — was unknowingly teaching me the same principle through his stroke: To take care of those least able to fend for themselves.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since — be a defender and an advocate for those who weren’t born with the privileges I was born with as a white male, for those who weren’t born with access, and for those who weren’t born with the resources necessary to survive and thrive.
It’s why a lot of my work in the U.S. Congress and at the United Nations was focused on addressing poverty and inequality. It’s why I worked as a care attendant in college for people with cerebral palsy. It’s why my writings of late have focused on addressing systemic racism in Vermont. Because I believe in doing everything I can to ensure everyone has the resources, the access and the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. No one left behind. Life is hard enough without the additional obstacles of inequality, illness or indifference.
The idiom is true: We are only as strong as our weakest link. So when I think of the phrase Vermont Strong, I think of all the ways we need to help our communities be strong — or stronger: Strong in the face of environmental shocks from increasingly extreme weather, such as another devastating hurricane, high winds, or increasing heat. Strong in the face of economic shocks, such as another recession, which we know will come. Strong in the face of a health-related shock, such as another pandemic, which we also know will come again.
If we want to invest in our communities so they’re strong enough to survive the next shock, and thrive long after, we need all hands on deck. And not just in the governmental sense, where we invest the necessary resources in public services and institutions, to ensure, as just one example, Vermont’s ongoing pandemic response is well-resourced. But in the nongovernmental sense as well, where we all, as a community, step up our engagement and serve each other like we’ve never served before. Especially now, our communities are hurting too much to not do more.
I’m committing to an all-hands-on-deck approach, unearthing every new opportunity I can to support the Rutland community, because that’s how I was raised in the Amish-Mennonite community. We took care of each other. My mom, my siblings and I definitely relied on it after Dad’s death. We had to. We wouldn’t have been able to survive without the community’s support, helping us with farm and household needs and repairs. This community, along with the government’s support (yes, the food stamps and Social Security checks were essential), helped us get by, get a leg up, and ultimately get through the toughest of times.
The Vermont community is very similar in its willingness and readiness to help. In our response to COVID-19’s devastating impacts, Vermonters are showing what’s possible: Lending a helping hand, donating dollars, buying groceries for neighbors, and going above and beyond. That kind of service to each other will keep us strong. Equally important are the needed investments in every aspect of our system if we want to be resilient in the face of the next shock.
That means we need to make sure our infrastructure — bridges, buildings and roads, for example — are prepared to weather the next storm, our energy and food systems are localized to be able to survive the next global crisis, our housing is affordable and efficiently retrofitted for worsening weather, health care is available and easily accessible to all, and wages are sufficient to give families the buffer they need to survive and succeed in life. That’s how we become Vermont Strong.
I think about these challenges all the time because it’s my day job. I work with cities around the world that are constantly facing environmental, economic and health-related shocks. And they’re doing everything they can to build more resilient cities, counties and towns. We should, too. That’s what I plan to do on Day One as your state senator: Do everything I can to make Vermont even stronger, to make Rutland more resilient, and to make sure no one is left behind — no matter their physical ability, the color of their skin or their ability to pay.
Michael Shank lives in Brandon.