New Center for Cartoon Studies Graphic Guide Explains Vermont's Democracy — Past, Present and Future | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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New Center for Cartoon Studies Graphic Guide Explains Vermont's Democracy — Past, Present and Future

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Published November 2, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


A spread from Freedom and Unity: A Graphic Guide to Civics and Democracy in Vermont  - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • A spread from Freedom and Unity: A Graphic Guide to Civics and Democracy in Vermont

Many people dislike the hate speech and so-called "othering" that litter social media. The rampant rage and friction playing out like a boxing match on the national news are enough to bruise our confidence and make us wonder, Will my vote make a difference in the upcoming midterm elections?

Turn off the television and radio. Turn off all social media notifications. Give your brain a break from the hostility and pick up a comic book. Yep, a comic book. Not one by Marvel or DC, but a comic that couldn't have come at a better time: Freedom and Unity: A Graphic Guide to Civics and Democracy in Vermont.

In 30 colorful pages, the guide explains the past, present and future promise of democracy in Vermont. Created in partnership with Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Secretary of State's Office, it's the latest in a series of guides published by the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, including This Is What Democracy Looks Like: A Graphic Guide to Governance (2019) and Let's Talk About It: A Graphic Guide to Mental Health (2020). Freedom and Unity was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

Vermont Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters told Seven Days that he and Secretary of State Jim Condos had been looking for a Vermont-specific guide to give to students touring the Statehouse.

"People are losing faith in government and elections," Winters said. In addition, schools are focusing less and less on civics education, and teachers are looking for resources, he noted.

In a Zoom interview, Vermont Humanities executive director Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup said the new guide is "a local version" of This Is What Democracy Looks Like. He helped promote Freedom and Unity because he "feels like Vermonters are losing touch with the basic principles of the democratic process," he said. He wants the comic to help readers see democracy as a "set of tools to use in different ways," he continued, "not just what we see on Fox, CNN or MSNBC."

"Comics are an inviting and accessible medium," CCS cofounder James Sturm added during the Zoom interview. They create a "welcoming space for engagement."

Susan Clark, who is a Middlesex town moderator, coauthor of Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home, and a collaborator on Freedom and Unity, could not agree more. "It's about participation. It's what we can do — we, not they," she said by phone.

In addition to chronicling Vermont's democracy, Freedom and Unity captures its challenges and contradictions. Ilstrup acknowledged that, since "we are not perfect here" in our brave little state, the guide speaks to "the places where we sometimes fall down." Or, in Clark's unadorned words, it recognizes "Vermont's legacy, warts and all."

"Freedom and Unity" has been Vermont's state motto since 1788. But what does the motto really mean? And how do we approach its inherent contradiction? While the guide presents a cohesive story, highlighting the state's long tradition of local democracy — town meetings, representation, and community efforts such as member-owned cooperatives and restorative justice centers — each page addresses the tension between freedom and unity.

"Each spread [i.e., two facing pages] is its own mini subject matter," Sturm explained, or "a start of a conversation."

For instance, one page lays bare how colonists declared Vermont a republic, ignoring the Abenaki presence on their homeland — a 10,000-year presence. Another page zeroes in on the state's history of racism and eugenics. Readers are invited to reflect on such injustices and relate them to current events. How can we better inform ourselves about Black Vermonters, migrants, Indigenous people and other marginalized groups? How can we better recognize and support those who feel excluded in our otherwise progressive state?

Lest readers feel overwhelmed, Freedom and Unity is "a sequential form of storytelling, where readers can choose their own pace," Dan Nott said during a conversation about his role as lead cartoonist on the comic. A CCS alumnus and comics history teacher there, Nott explained how he approaches the larger picture, whether it's a comic book project or our government: He homes in, piece by piece, to learn and better understand the takeaway.

National Endowment for the Humanities chair Shelly C. Lowe and Vermont Humanities' Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup - COURTESY OF KAREN KENTON
  • Courtesy Of Karen Kenton
  • National Endowment for the Humanities chair Shelly C. Lowe and Vermont Humanities' Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup

During the yearlong creation of Freedom and Unity, Ilstrup, Clark, Sturm, Nott and other collaborators consistently asked questions such as "Is the book inclusive and accessible?" and "What's missing?," they said. Sturm, a self-declared "impatient cartoonist," said his role in creating the comic forced him "to listen to all voices, to be more patient."

Ilstrup expressed great appreciation for Vera Longtoe Sheehan's help in accurately representing the Abenaki experience. An artist, activist and educator, she is executive director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association and founder of the Abenaki Arts & Education Center.

Ilstrup believes Vermont Humanities' capacity for coalition building is "one of [its] superpowers" and that the comic is part of a larger public education campaign. He hopes organizations will find it useful for promoting hard conversations throughout Vermont about democracy.

Last month, Vermont Humanities made the comic available at the Hispanic and Latino Heritage Celebration in Montpelier and at the first Non-Fiction Comics Festival at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington, Ilstrup said. Sheehan handed out the comic at Indigenous Peoples' Day events all over the state.

Other organizations will distribute the comic, including the Snelling Center for Government and the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Vermont Humanities will use the book at its camps to engage middle school students, and the Vermont Department of Libraries is working with all 185 state public libraries to distribute it widely, with funding from the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Community Foundation.

Civics education has suffered since standardized testing gained ground during the era of No Child Left Behind (2002 to 2015), according to a 2017 National Education Association story by Amanda Litvinov. The revival of book-banning debates, nationwide and in Vermont, likewise signals a democracy in peril.

"We're living in one of the most divisive times," Winters said. But "if we know what happens behind the curtain," he continued, we'll learn more about how we can participate in democracy: attending public meetings, running for office, writing op-eds.

Clark summarized the imperative perfectly: "Democracy is 365 days a year."


Corrected on November, 2, 2022: Vermont Humanities, the Vermont Secretary of State's Office and the Center for Cartoon Studies partnered to create
Freedom and Unity: A Graphic Guide to Freedom and Democracy in Vermont.

Freedom and Unity: A Graphic Guide to Civics and Democracy in Vermont, by the Center for Cartoon Studies, 30 pages. Free (online); $6 (paperback). cartoonstudies.org

Vermont Humanities virtual talk, "Slow Democracy and the Power of Community" with Susan Clark, Wednesday, November 2, 7 p.m. Free. vermonthumanities.org

The original print version of this article was headlined "Civics 101 | New Center for Cartoon Studies graphic guide explains Vermont's democracy — past, present and future"