‘Care is fundamental’: A Q&A with Vermont State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale

Vermont State Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale. Photo: Vermont State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale

The Oxfam Sister on the Planet on what care means to society: “Everybody needs to take care of themselves or somebody else.”

Vermont State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale knows how important reliable childcare is for her family and career. A mother of a 10-month-old with a second child on the way, she calls it a privilege to access reliable care. “Care work is the bedrock of our society and economy,” she says. “It is fundamental to the human experience—but woefully absent from our policy-making agenda.”

Hinsdale is chair of the Senate Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee. Now, in her home state of Vermont and across the U.S., millions of families are struggling due to insufficient care of all kinds: elder care, paid family and medical leave, and so much more. We sat down with Hinsdale—an Oxfam Sister on the Planet ambassador—to talk about her efforts to bolster support for care workers and caregivers.

Why does care matter?

Hinsdale: Care has always been fundamental to the human experience. One of the most natural things we do in relationships is care. The atomization of Americans is related to the loneliness crisis, the isolation crisis, the mental health crisis—and this idea is spreading around the world. This idea that we can ‘do it ourselves.’ That self-reliance can carry us through. We know that's just a myth. It's a very recent and very Western idea that we don't need very large villages and circles to take care of each other.

Why does this issue matter to you personally?

Hinsdale: I grew up with my Indian grandmother in the household. I greatly benefited that I could read and write cursive by the time I was two years old, because she had the time and capacity to be there and pass on her wisdom. Now as a new mom of a 10-month-old, expecting another, and real uncertainty about what it’ll be like to be a “2 under 2” parent, I was very reliant on our circle and our network, and I am privileged that we can afford care. Care is often ignored, marginalized, uncompensated, and undervalued in general, in society. And that means we should really valorize and uplift the people who provide care.

What care issues are you seeing in Vermont right now?

Hinsdale: The status quo is not working. And it is leading to isolation. In Vermont we are a rural state and rural senior isolation is deadly. When we look at the climate crisis, we had two of the top flood events in our history over the last six months—this past July and December. The most vulnerable are seniors who don't have a safety net. Of course, families are really vulnerable too, because children might have to switch schools. They're losing housing but particularly, we often don't even know if someone's safe who's a senior or has a disability until well after the danger has passed. So a rural older state really has to think about who's connected to who when disaster strikes. And that's a huge vulnerability that we face with climate change.

Can you speak to the gender and racial justice implications of care? How are disadvantaged communities affected by weak care policies?

Hinsdale: For me the intersections are kind of endless. The history of this country is the history of devaluing the work and the care that Black and Brown women provide. They had to sacrifice time with their own children to spend time with somebody else's children in order to survive, and the policies that we make are often when white women are finally impacted by the situation. So all of a sudden, women going into the workforce becomes a bigger deal in the ‘80s, and yet Black and Brown women have always been in the workforce—in fields, in someone else's home, in hotels. Our policies really have never taken into account their undercompensated and hard labor and the sacrifices they've made for their own family.

What do you see as solutions to the care crisis?

Hinsdale: First of all, no one like me has ever chaired the Economic Development and Housing Committee in the Vermont State Senate. I'm the first woman of color in history to serve in the State Senate and to anyone's recollection, there has never even been a woman who's chaired the Economic Development committee, let alone a woman of color, let alone a woman who is now pregnant twice in her time as chair. It shouldn't be as uncommon as it is because when people who have provided care, who think about the invisible care economy, sit at the head of the table, the questions are different. The people speaking are different. The agenda is very different.

We could say—these are all economic development issues. These are all workforce issues. Strong unions and childcare support. We had our first hearing on our Universal Child Care Bill in our committee. Senior housing has also been a big issue for us this year. Teeing up paid family leave, and I'm starting to get to the point where I'd just like us to talk about paid leave for everyone. Everybody has a unique situation. Everybody needs to take care of themselves or somebody else. I look at different states, and you see places where you look around and see a rehab facility and tons of assisted living. And you know, a really robust care economy. You can see it. You can feel the options that you have around you.

How can we bring more attention to care?

Hinsdale: You know what the great Shirley Chisholm said: “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” The way we are divided and othered has so much to do with how we are kept from having basic supports that people in other countries take for granted. An image is painted of someone undeserving, and that image becomes very strong. And it is absolutely the exception and not the rule. But people start to see that as a reason to craft our entire policy regime, you know, out of keeping people out rather than letting people in.

Everyone run for office—I mean truly. If I'm the only woman of color who's ever been here in the Vermont State Senate—and you know probably one of the only people in history who's been pregnant at the same time that I'm here—you can imagine that's usually somebody who might get 5 minutes to speak, and they're taking time off of work. And they're leaving their kids in the hallway to be heard versus sitting at the head of the table chairing the Economic Development Committee.

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