Reflections on attending the State of the Union

When your congressional representative calls to ask if you can be her special guest at the State of the Union you say “Of course!” and hope nothing occurs in your life to prevent it.

I am sure I won’t forget getting that call from Becca Balint, not just because there is a video on social media of her making it. Even though Vermont is a small state, there are still thousands of people she could have asked, and it was an honor to be chosen. And it is a tremendous gift to share the work happening in our community in a broader way.

I was amazed by many things during my time in DC. First, there are a lot of different kinds of people roaming the halls of the congressional office buildings, not just political appointees and their staff. I am not sure how many of us realize you can just go in and hang out. The accessibility made it really feel like it was ‘for the people’ even if you aren’t guaranteed an appointment or the chance to be in committee rooms. I loved the diversity of people I saw – veterans, teenagers, a group of people wearing teal-colored sashes, another wearing orange shirts and black pants, people in suits, families with young children – and wondered why they were there. I had been worried about being uncomfortable in an unknown environment, and instead I felt like I belonged because I was one of many from far flung corners of the United States.

I was also struck by the pace of the environment as I spent time with Congresswoman Balint and her staff. It felt relentless, always on the move, trying to keep to the schedule as planned, digest and respond to new information on the fly (a proposed bill about TikTok was causing the phone lines to ring a lot that day), be present to vote, do interviews with media outlets, then find a few minutes to eat before the evening activities begin. It made me appreciate that we have a representative committed to thinking deeply about issues that matter to us, researching to understand, staying curious and open to new information and bringing her best self to decision-making. DC feels like a place that wears down many people in the grind. I am grateful for those who are willing to truly serve in the face of these challenges. It is vital to stay connected to the world outside of the DC bubble, and having guests at the SOTU seems like one way to keep it real.

I was also able to meet with staff members of our two Vermont senators. They took time to learn about our plans to build 300 units of mixed-income housing on our campus hopefully starting in mid-year 2025. They listened attentively, offered suggestions, and said they would keep an ear out for opportunities to help.

Finally, the State of the Union itself is a ritual of pomp and circumstance. Watching senators, cabinet members and Supreme Court justices enter the chamber, greeting representatives and colleagues, reminded me that this is one big workplace, and that it has dynamics we all experience. Who is sitting where? Who is talking to whom? Who is being avoided? Our jobs and scope of responsibilities may be different, but we are all humans just the same. This resonated for me when President Biden spoke about our North Star in his address: “The very idea of America is that we’re all created equal, deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives. We’ve never fully lived up to that idea, but we’ve never walked away from it either.” This is one of the possibilities for us as we look to the future – to keep walking, to build the world we want, where everyone belongs, has what they need, and contributes their gifts to the community.