Spotlight on Monika Ganguly-Kiefner

Name: Monika Ganguly-Kiefner

Pronouns: she/her

Current Town: Clarendon

Years in VT: 18 years total (not consecutively)

Industry: Public Health

Profession: Chronic Disease Prevention Specialist for the Vermont Department of Health

Tell us a bit about your background before arriving in VT.

Well, before ‘arriving’ in Vermont I was a twinkle in my parent’s eyes—I was born in Burlington and lived in northern Vermont for the first ten or so years of my existence. Then we moved to Florida as my mom got a fully funded Masters/PhD program down at University of Florida. I decided Florida wasn’t for me, and left to do my first two years of college at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, transferred and finished my undergraduate at Green Mountain College, and settled in the Rutland area after that and worked for several years. I did pop over to Wisconsin for two years from 2018-2020 to complete my Master of Sustainable Peacebuilding degree at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, but always intended to return and so here I am in the Rutland area again!

What do you enjoy about being working in VT?

I work for the Vermont Department of Health as a Chronic Disease Prevention Specialist with a focus on health equity for traditionally underserved populations including BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities and low income communities. I love working in Vermont because there is a growing emphasis on the importance of equity—it is exciting to see how much enthusiasm from community partners has come from my health equity focused work. It’s also fabulous to be paid for what BIPOC are usually asked to volunteer for free—educate. By paying for my skills, it centers the importance of health equity as something worth funding rather than something people should do in their free time.

Because Vermont is so small it’s also really nice to be basically one step removed from everyone—I can reach out to someone I’ve never met and their response is usually something like, “Oh sure, I’d love to chat! Also, I think I know someone else in your family!” (as my entire family works in social services/nonprofits in the Rutland area). This closeness is a major reason I’ve returned to Vermont even after moving away several times. The tight knit community is unmatched by anywhere else I’ve lived.

What are some challenges that you’ve faced working in VT?

While there is a growing focus on equity and what that will look like moving forward in Vermont, I have also encountered reluctance from people to admit that discrimination exists, even when I tell them that my family and I have experienced it in the state. It can be difficult to engage in health equity work when there is a lack of acknowledgement of the problem of discrimination existing in the first place. This certainly isn’t unique to Vermont—it happens everywhere else I’ve lived too—but it can be challenging to work through and around.

How have you worked to overcome these challenges?

It’s an active process as I’ve only been in this position for about three months now, but I know it’s going to involve a lot of conversation and a lot of framing and re-framing issues until the message finally sinks in. There will always be some individuals who will never want to hear what I’m saying, and that is a process of acceptance too—just acknowledge and move on to people who are more willing to listen. I’m optimistically hoping that the more I keep on pushing the issues, the more it will become mainstream knowledge in my area and the more general acceptance it will gain.

What opportunities do you see for your industry in the future?

There is so much room for growth in the health equity field! Health equity really touches on almost everything—housing, the economy, employment, recreation, etc—so there is a ton of room for me to be involved in some really great projects. I’ve only been in this field for three months, so I’m still getting a feel for everything but so far I’ve had a bunch of organizations approach me with questions about health equity, needing presentations on different facets of equity, and looking for a holistic lens to serve on Justice, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (JDE&I) committees.

In what ways could your community or the state of VT support BIPOC?

Go out and actually support them! VT Farm to Plate has a resource list on their website at Vermont BIPOC-Owned Businesses | Resources | Vermont Farm to Plate (vtfarmtoplate.com) which has businesses sorted by category. VT Professionals of Color Network website [also has] an interactive Directory, which is super exciting!

What advice would you have wanted to receive about being a person of color in VT?

Be prepared to be the only BIPOC professional in the room, and don’t let it stop you. It can sometimes be exhausting to not see another BIPOC face in the workplace or the community for days. In many of the places I’ve worked I have been the first/only BIPOC to work there, but there has to be a first for everything!

What do you wish others knew about living in VT that you’ve discovered?

The BIPOC community here isn’t huge but it is very strong and I enjoy being part of it. It does take a little extra effort to connect since Vermont is so rural, and even more so if you live outside of the Burlington area like I do, but it is totally worth the effort.

Are there other things (events/opportunities/etc) you’d like to share with the VT BIPOC community?

I’ve had fun participating in Come Alive Outside’s Leaf Peeping Society and their Mile a Day challenge. Their programs are enjoyable and include creative ways to spend more time in nature. I love hiking and generally being outside, so it has been great! Their organization is not BIPOC-owned or specific, but they’re actively working towards becoming more inclusive.

Why are you a member of Vermont Professionals of Color Network?

Because I believe that we’re strongest together, and it is so wonderful to have an organization that brings BIPOC folks together in this way. I’m really thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with other BIPOC in Vermont. So thank you! I’m also happy to chit chat with anyone about health equity, so if anyone is interested they can feel free to get in touch at monika.ganguly-kiefner@vermont.gov.