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Throwing Myself into the Realm of the Greater Good

by Vanessa Bertozzi

I never thought I’d run for public office. I’m a pretty private person. I have no background in politics. No thirst for power or grandstanding skills. But here I am—an elected official of the most hyper-local form of government, a Village Trustee in Rhinebeck, NY. How did this happen? 

When Trump was elected, it was a wake-up call for me. How could I look in the mirror and not feel responsible? I’d been complacent and doing the minimum when it came to politics. What started as a post-election support group with some friends turned into a lever to push ourselves into more active participation at the local level. If we wanted things to be different, to be better, then what could we do to reach out and make that change? We started with a free, nonpartisan series of Civics classes hosted at the local public library here in Rhinebeck where we live—very much inspired by one that GWI hosted in Kingston. That was the spark!

Climate change is the issue that motivates me on a personal level and the need it prompts to bring the community together for broader change. I literally think everyday about what I am going to say to my kids when they’re grown up and ask me about this critical time. “Mom, what did you do?” I want to be not just “a person who cares,” but someone who is actualized. 

The work I’m doing now as an elected official is to work through the system of local government to transition where I live to a more resilient and sustainable place. Here are some examples of our work:

  • Two volunteers on our climate task force have been trained by Cornell Cooperative Extension Dutchess County to become Energy Navigators—to offer free consultations with residents about how to reduce their energy bills and transition to renewables.
  • The collaboration I’m part of with our Village and Town Highway Departments. We’re running a pilot this winter to reduce road salt by switching to salt brine, a technique to lessen the amount of salt that seeps into and contaminates drinking water, streams, wetlands and other sensitive ecosystems. 
  • We have a high school student on our climate task force who wants to arrange a partnership between the Village government and the school district to collect food scraps and pilot a municipal composting program. 

These initiatives are at the beginning stages, but I can see how stitching together different people in the community will make the fabric of these efforts more durable. It’s exciting!

Then again, when I’m in these long Parks and Rec-esque meetings, it’s like learning a new language of bureaucracy and red tape. I’ve been digging into our procurement policy with state-mandated thresholds that require public bid, and meanwhile trying to enshrine my environmentally-preferable requirements into said procurement policy. I sometimes joke that my superpower is my ability to find really boring things interesting. I get this from my father who is a retired bankruptcy lawyer who took me when I was growing up in New England on weekend outings to explore cranberry bogs and the geology of glacial erratics. I draw on this skill in my local government work.

There’s been a surprising amount of creativity in local municipal work. That creativity comes with working with a group of volunteers and figuring out how to engage with the public, through our events or programs that speak to people’s needs—and through our municipal website, which I’m redesigning.

I encourage folks to get involved in government at a local level. Embrace the excruciating boredom of a Village Board meeting! You’ll actually learn how your place works—how the streets get paved and the water mains repaired. I think one of the biggest issues we have as Americans is that we’re caught in this mentality where everything is transactional and “the customer is always right” and we are always the customer. Show up with a point of view but be part of a conversation where the ultimate goal is the greater good of the community. Get beyond your self-interest. You’ll arrive at a place that is a lot more meaningful. 

Vanessa Bertozzi is an environmental consultant, newly elected Village of Rhinebeck Trustee, a mom, and a homebody (though aren’t we all during the pandemic?). Vanessa, after spending many years in New York City, has put down roots in the Hudson Valley, where she also serves on the Steering Committee of Rhinebeck Responds, a volunteer organization that has raised over $150,000 to support local small businesses and underserved families during the COVID crisis.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Good Work Institute or any other agency, organization, employer or company. And since we are critically-thinking human beings, these views are always subject to change, revision, and rethinking at any time. Please do not hold anyone accountable to them in perpetuity.

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