Name: Kesha Ram Hinsdale
Current Town: Shelburne
Years in VT: 18 years
Industry: Politics and Government
Business name: Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale
Tell us a bit about your background before arriving in VT.
I grew up waiting tables and sweeping peanut shells off the floor in my Indian immigrant father’s and Jewish American mother’s Irish pub. My parents put everything they had into their kids and the restaurant that they imagined would grow and might even be passed down to the next generation. When I was still young, the restaurant took a turn and went under, my parents’ marriage ended, and we moved to a neighborhood plagued by environmental pollutants.
My siblings and I grew up with my mother as our primary caregiver. She was the first elected official in my life, voted in for decades to lead the board of our local food cooperative, which meant we had fresh, local groceries even when money was tight. When I began looking at colleges, I settled on the University of Vermont. I came here for college and in my senior year began my first campaign for state representative. I’ve been living and serving in the state ever since.
What do you enjoy about being a professional of color in VT?
I have always thought of Vermont as this cozy, warm little house, with fire burning and a tea kettle on. You look around and so many people are happy and loving each other. But then there are some folks out in the cold looking through the window, and seeing this incredible community. They’re seeing what is possible and the support that Vermonters extend to each other, but they feel like they can’t get in to access it. This feeling is why I ran for office at 21 – to open that door and to allow more folks to be a part of the conversation and community. I enjoy being a professional of color here because I look around me and see so many of us doing the same. Paving the way for the next generation and then looking back to make sure we are bringing along our community with us.
What are some challenges that you’ve faced as a professional of color since living in VT?
When it comes to people of color, Vermont doesn’t have a recruitment problem as much as a retention problem. There is so much focus at a statewide level of trying to recruit more people of color to come to our state, but much less investment in supporting and making them feel safe once they are here. In fact, 90% of Vermont’s population growth over the last decade has come from the in-migration of BIPOC residents, largely from refugee resettlement and the pull of higher education and large institutional employers. But our institutions and communities often fail to support folks when they arrive — or often, even when they’ve grown up here. I have helped friends move for fear of their safety and children’s safety. I have also struggled to access capital myself as a small business owner and have vowed to change that in my work in the legislature. We can and must do more — the future of our state and the well-being of so many depends on it.
How have you worked to overcome the challenges?
I know that my life and my dreams are made possible by so many that have come before me. In turn, I have worked to uplift the goals and aspirations of the next generation. I am the first woman of color to serve in the Vermont State Senate, which is a title I do not carry lightly, but I am also determined to ensure I am not the last and have been working to create support systems for other people of color who want to run for office. I have seen the difference with presence in the legislature, and have fought for bills to expand access to homeownership through first-generation homebuyers grants, address the climate crisis with a lens on environmental justice, and dismantle the systems of oppression in our broken policing and criminal justice systems.
What opportunities do you see for your industry in the future?
I have been working with a network of people of color involved in politics to develop support for folks interested in running for office. In 2021, we came together to found Bright Leadership Institute (BLI), an offshoot of the NAACP chapters in Vermont, with the goal of getting more people of color in office and leadership roles. We celebrate, too often, people running themselves into the ground to create change. With BLI we’re trying to really steer away from that model, and give people the resources to succeed and create balance in their lives.
In what ways could your community or the state of VT support BIPOC?
We’ve uncovered more disparities over time, ones that we knew were there without full data, and we are far past the time to act on them. Coming from a policy and legislative point of view, I have been working to expand access to this data from racial demographics to policing, housing and homeownership, and health disparities. We need to collect comprehensive data and act on our findings, allocating funds to address centuries of racist policies that were designed to keep us from succeeding. One thing that keeps me up at night is the fact that young Black men make up 2.5% of the youth population in Chittenden County, but 25% of those charged as youthful offenders. That should keep everyone in our criminal justice system up at night, too, and I make sure we do not forget the deep disparities that exist so we can work together to address them.
What advice would you have wanted to receive about being a VT professional before arriving?
When I talk to young folks who want to run for office or enter the professional and business world, I think it’s important to be very upfront that you will stand out. But, that is mostly a good thing if you are up for it. At the same time, it can be exhausting, so you have to lean on the BIPOC folks around you. You have a strong support system of people from the Vermont Professionals of Color Network who understand you without the need to explain yourself. That is something to fall back on so you can lift others up with you as you rise.
What do you wish others knew about living in VT that you’ve discovered?
I hope everyone knows that we have each other’s backs here. I felt alone when I first moved here, but immediately was lent a hand and an ear by so many mentors who are now like family. In the work that I have engaged in to encourage more young people of color to run for office, my biggest goal has always been for the participants to know that they have a large family around the state that will be there for them no matter what. The personal is political, so reach out whatever you’re facing, and you will be supported.
Are there other things (events/opportunities/etc.) you’d like to share with the VT BIPOC community?
Those who know me well may have heard this before, but please, run for office! From school board to State Representative to the Governor’s office, we need your voice at the table. Running for office and putting yourself out there can be extremely vulnerable and we are working to create support systems to help you run a campaign, win, and lead with support once elected. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re interested in taking the leap. We would all love to connect you with resources, networks, and supports.
Why are you a member of Vermont Professionals of Color Network?
Community, community, community. Full stop. It is a deeply powerful experience to be able to stay connected to people of color across the state in a network of support and mutual understanding. I’m incredibly grateful for this network so that we can lean on each other. I know many people of color love this state and want this state to love them back. I am here to help you feel loved and to make your home here.