Do you need some civic education? Former Ward 8 city councilor Adam Roof and others involved in the Vermont Democratic Party believe they can help you. The latest in a long line of nonprofits backed by former politicos or establishment power brokers is BTV FWD, which invites you to “stop holding Burlington back” and start learning about civics.
Roof, a city director at BTV Ignite and the Burlington Democratic Party chair, lost his Burlington City Council re-election bid in 2020 to Jane Stromberg. He also had an unsuccessful bid for the Vermont State Senate and says his desire to inform the public on the impact of local government in their lives—despite not informing the public that he is paid in part by the city in his bio on the BTV FWD website—was the inspiration behind the project.
“We looked at it as an opportunity to take this kind of treasure trove of knowledge that I had, and others have articulated, in a way that is more accessible,” said Roof in an interview conducted in late June.
Those others? They include BTV FWD board members such as former Public Works Commissioner and 2021 Central District Burlington city council candidate Tiki Archambeau, Bruce Baker, a Burlington attorney and partner at Clarke, Demas & Baker LLC, which specializes in business, commercial finance, land use and real estate law and Hannah King, Roof’s former campaign manager and intern for the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.
The group’s current business filing lists Baker’s firm as the principal. Its initial business filing, which was dissolved on May 7, listed former Ward 2 city council candidate Ryan Nick, the son of Church Street Marketplace Commission Chair Jeff Nick, and Jackson Ode, the son of Representative Carol Ode (Chittenden 6-1), as principals.
Given the powerful positions of those involved, is it possible to achieve a “growing civic-minded coalition committed to working with our members to share concise, factual, and relevant insights on issues facing Burlington” without actively protecting their interests? Roof says it is.
Despite acknowledging that Burlington is a small, political community (and that this is one of the things he likes about it), Roof said, “I think the content speaks for itself. We work really hard to make sure there [are] no political statements being made in the communications. You know, people will read and interpret things. That’s part of putting out information in a world; that’s what everyone will do, especially in today’s media landscape.”
What Roof can’t explain is how working only with those who have political and economic cache in Burlington, including those who recently lost local elections to Progressive Party candidates, and adopting the slogan “Stop holding Burlington back” is not political.
As for the slogan, Roof claimed he would look into it with his web developer and that BTV FWD should not be judged on a slogan, but rather on the breadth of their work and content they are putting out. Moreover, in Roof’s mind, there’s nothing political about working with recent political candidates, including Archambeau, who had a very specific aim against the direction of the current council, led by the Progressive Party.
“This narrative, which I totally get, because it’s Burlington politics after all, that Tiki and I and others sat around all disgruntled about having lost an election and we’re going to fix it by starting a civic education organization, like of course that fits a nice little Twitter thread logic, but that’s not the case,” Roof said.
“This is really a fun project for us to take a passion about local government, local politics and drive to articulate it to people that are kind of in my age bracket…30-something, 20-something millennials who don’t spend a lot of time thinking about local politics, and trying to tell a cool story that way.”
Among BTV FWD’s first projects is tackling the city re-appraisal of homes. In a city with 60 percent of the population renting, its suggestion is for tenants to reach out to their landlords to talk through the process, to access the Rental Rebate Program, linking to the necessary forms and talking to your representatives. What it doesn’t address is how tenants would have the leverage, confidence, or time to discuss this with their landlords, who continually disregard tenant needs and will simply raise their rent after a re-appraisal. Roof points to his record as a councilor in Ward 8, which houses a large portion of renters from the University of Vermont.
In particular, he pointed multiple times to Soon Kwon, a nonwhite property owner whose two properties were the subject of media attention and public scrutiny from city officials due to the number of complaints filed against him. While Roof might use Kwon to support his claim that he’s no friend of undeniably bad landlords, he also advocates for landlords. Roof rejects the idea that all landlords are bad and asserts that advocates who suggest “no one pay rent” would be hurting their landlord, who might be a family using rental income as their retirement. Additionally, because he’s “sometimes overly committed to nuance and balance in discourse” —something he said possibly contributed to losing his city council race—Roof said any discussion of good vs. bad landlords must also include good vs. bad tenants, to have a fair discourse, despite landlords holding a significantly larger share of power and access to city officials.
BTV FWD is not about discourse or advocacy, however. It’s a political education 501(c)3 nonprofit, not an advocacy organization. It is here to inform, and not to debate in any area where Roof says “hyperbolic and one-sided arguments” are “elevated.” This, according to Roof, is why BTV FWD would not address issues surrounding the yearslong public debate regarding police funding and the role of police in the community.
Despite the belief in BTV FWD’s ability to do good and that a better educated population will lead to better outcomes for everyone, it’s a position that falls short not only globally, but in Burlington, too. Its efforts to divorce any form of activism or direct action from civic engagement or education also set a dangerous trend that misses the mark toward a prescriptive, top-down approach from those in positions of authority, says Ali O’Brien of Burlington, an educator and organizer with Old North End Mutual Aid (ONEMA).
“It seems like the content and the audience are pretty nebulous, but also you can imagine who they’re trying to get at with the particular topics they are taking on,” said O’Brien.
Roof’s idea of an audience (20- and 30-something millennials looking to learn about city issues), doesn’t correlate with the needs for many in Burlington, including the tenuously housed or low income residents who aren’t going to attend or read BTV FWD’s primers, O’Brien added.
Being able to offer a member in the community assistance that materially benefits someone directly is how ONEMA helps Burlington residents with real issues and immediate concerns. It also provides more value to residents.
“Whoever is giving and receiving support does so much more to build a sense of solidarity and community, neighborhood or city than an educational understanding of your city budget breakdown,” O’Brien said. Further, O’Brien spoke to mutual aid empowering direct action in the community, from attending protests, casting a vote a certain way, and organizing around issues in Burlington that impact or stand to benefit all.
“Feeling like people in your city have your back, and aren’t just trying to explain to you what your priorities should be is something that can be a lot more valuable.”
Who the messaging comes from matters, too. Those behind BTV FWD have more access to power and can be more successful in places of power by their identity (white, cis men). Roof does acknowledge his identity affords him benefits, and he brings up that he’s the first of his Massachusetts-based family to graduate college as his working-class bonafides (Roof attended a private Boston high school and his father owns and operates a small construction business). He’s a self-described “climber” who wants to “bring people up with him.” But those who do so are on Roof’s, and BTV FWD’s, terms.
“There’s so much political engagement happening. Our organization is an example, but there’s many others actively doing political and civic projects in town, but they’re just not the right ones [to BTV FWD],” said O’Brien.
For BTV FWD, given the makeup of those involved or indirectly attached to the project, civics is an exercise in power and paternalism. In discussing civic matters on their website, there’s no disclosure of their personal or city interests. There is no transparency on how a stance on a budget or government issue relates to them directly in their positions both current and past. This includes assisting fellow city councilors on campaign work as Roof did and his continued role as both a city director and Burlington Democratic Party chair. There are also no disclosures of Archambeau receiving multiple maximum campaign contributions from large property management groups like Bissonette Properties during his council run. And it fails to address that a person associated with the project, Ryan Nick, is both a family member and directly employed by a city appointee who has publicly degraded Burlington’s homeless population, Jeff Nick. These relationships don’t lend credence to the idea that BTV FWD is aiming to help all Burlington residents. What these relationships do demonstrate is a gap between informing residents where their tax payments are going and providing community members access to real power. Giving residents actual power beyond the realm of civic education risks activity that BTV FWD may deem irrelevant, “hyperbolic,” or “holding Burlington back.”
“That’s a direct reaction to what is significantly farther left than what they would like [for] political activity,” O’Brien said.
Since Roof spoke to The Rake Vermont in June, BTV FWD has not published new content to its website or posted to social media.
Photo at top by Channel 17, Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.
Matt Moore is a writer from Vermont. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.