Senator Leahy Hosts 24th Annual Vermont Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference

. . . Xusana Davis, Women Business Owners Join Leahy

On Saturday (Oct. 23) Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and his wife, Marcelle, hosted their 24th Annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference (WEOC).

Xusana Davis, Vermont’s Executive Director of Racial Equity, was the keynote speaker. Her remarks were followed by a panel discussion with three Vermont women who own businesses about how they were able to refocus their businesses during the pandemic.

The online conference drew 270 participants, half of them first-time attendees.

In his opening remarks, Leahy noted the pandemic has had an outsized impact on women, driving women’s participation in the labor force to a 30-year low.

“Our economy has not worked as well for women as it should,” he said. “Childcare has been too expensive, too scarce.”

While frontline workers won praise for their efforts and the risks they took, “too often these positions are underpaid, held by women, often women of color,” Leahy said.

Those disparities are part of why the Senator is working to turn President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan into legislation, he said. “Our goal is to create a bill that invests in child care, that supports working families and that cares for America’s most vulnerable.”

At the start of her remarks, Davis noted “there is a collective benefit to equity and a collective harm to inequity.”

Addressing inequity isn’t about creating opportunity, she said, but removing barriers. “People often see equity work as some kind of handout,” Davis said, when it’s really about no longer blocking opportunities and making meaningful investments.

Davis used how thermostats are set in offices as an example of invisible barriers. The optimal temperature for offices was determined by a study in the 1950s of men wearing suits. Those are temperatures that can leave women, whose required dress for work often includes skirts and dresses, shivering, Davis noted. “The formulas are built in,” she said.

Davis also spoke of Women’s Equal Pay Day, that day during the year when women finally earn what men earned the previous year. On March 24, 2021, a woman who started working on Jan. 1, 2020, finally earned what a typical man earned in 2020. Those pay gaps are even greater for women of color. It wasn’t until Oct. 21 that Latinas earned what men earned last year. Equal Pay Day for Black women was on Aug. 3 and not until Sept. 8 for indigenous women.

For women the goal should not be simply to earn what men earn, in Davis’s view. “It’s not about earning the same money for the same work, if that work is fueling inequality and ecological destruction,” she said.

Davis also noted that ending inequity benefits everyone. “When we stop disempowering people we all move forward,” she said.

Asked how Vermont communities could become more welcoming, Davis told a story about visiting a Vermont beach this summer. “Predictably, I was the only person of color… within minutes the entire beach had emptied out,” she said. After that, “I really didn’t want to be there anymore.”

That example shows how people can be made to feel unwelcome without a word being said, Davis told the audience.

She also warned it’s very easy to mistake diversity for inclusion. A genuine sense of belonging only comes when people’s voices and experiences are included in decision making, Davis said.

Davis advised those who want to foster a more equitable Vermont to “lower your guard and open your eyes.”

“Educate yourself about accurate history,” she recommended. “Too often people think this country has always been just and fair, and it hasn’t.”

Panelist Akshata Nayak started Little Patahka during the pandemic, a business which creates books and other media for children with the aim of shattering stereotypes. Nayak, who speaks five languages, got the idea for the company when she realized how little exposure her daughter was getting to Nayak’s own native language, Konkani, which is slowly dying out. So she wrote a book for her daughter.

After a successful online fundraising campaign, Nayak is now publishing books and providing online resources to expose children to Konkani and Hindi, the most commonly spoken language in her native India.

“I want to show that this can take root in a state like Vermont, because there are people who are looking for it and there are people who are ready for it,” she said.

Julia Birnn Fields heads Birnn Chocolates, which has been in her family for four generations. During the pandemic, the company, which sells truffles wholesale, had to close as many of its customers closed their operations. Thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program, the company was able to continue paying customers until it reopened fully.

Now sales are double what they were before the pandemic. “We are busier than we’ve ever, ever been,” she said.

Local relationships have been key to making the business work over the past two years, according to Birnn, including relationships with fellow Vermont chocolate makers Lake Champlain Chocolates and Vermont Nut Free Chocolates. The two companies loaned Birnn Chocolates cold packs necessary for shipping when the company was unable to source them. While people might expect the three companies to be competing, they’ve actually helped one another through the pandemic, including sharing resources, Fields said.

Abby Lechthaler and her spouse operate The Downtown Grocery, a Ludlow restaurant. For them, the pandemic offered an opportunity to downsize. The restaurant now operates at a scale where only three staff are needed, Lechthaler, her husband Rogan, and a bartender. The change “has been such a new lease on life for our family,” Lechthaler said.

Leahy thanked the participants for sharing their experiences, expertise and perspectives.

Recordings from the event will be available online later in the week.

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