Mayor’s Office

Mayor Miro Weinberger Delivers Commencement Address at the University of Vermont Honors College Ceremony

May 20, 2019
Contact: Olivia LaVecchia
                (802) 734-0617

Get Involved: Participating Locally Will Be Good For You, Your Home, and Your Country

Delivered by Mayor Miro Weinberger at the University of Vermont Honors College Commencement Ceremony, May 18, 2019


Burlington, VT  –  On Saturday, May 18, Mayor Miro Weinberger delivered the following address to graduates at the University of Vermont Honors College Commencement Ceremony:

Good afternoon! Congratulations on your imminent graduation. Congratulations to each of you on successfully completing the Honors College program. I am quite excited to be with you here today. 

One of the reasons for that is that I appreciate having the opportunity in this setting to acknowledge President Sullivan’s service. He and I started within weeks of each other in 2012. The first time we met he told me that he believed that the City of Burlington was one of the key things that made UVM a great university. He has put action behind those words as we have worked through a number of challenges together. This has been a collaborative period in Burlington-UVM relations that I believe has been good for both institutions. Tom, thank you for your service to this community and I wish you and Leslie all the best in your future endeavors.

While I did not attend UVM, I have long been a big fan of the Honors College and have developed quite a few connections to it over the years. One of the first people I hired as mayor, Jen Kaulius, was a 2012 Honors College graduate and now has a big job at the UVM Medical Center. Your Dean David Jenemann and I have known each other for many years and collaborated on so many things that he even allows me to use his baseball glove in the old man’s hardball league we play in together.

And if being asked for the first time to make a graduation speech isn’t enough to make someone feel old, the fact that I have known one of your graduating Honors College classmates – the wonderful May Albee – since she was born certainly does.

Moreover, it seems fitting to be with you today because I don’t think there would be a graduating class in the country much interested in what I have to say without the work of UVM Honors College students.

I mean this quite literally. In my first campaign, in 2012, we had 20 campaign interns who were Honors College students. For months, virtually every room in our house, just on the other side of the green here, was filled with students day and night making voter ID calls, stuffing envelopes, writing Facebook posts, creating walk lists, and more. Those 20 interns and volunteers influenced the outcome of that election, and without them, you would be hearing from a different speaker today.

Since that time, the UVM student movement has impacted Burlington much more broadly than just one mayoral election. You, the 2019 Honors College graduates, have been a big part of it. After many years in which UVM student involvement in local elections was minimal, during your years, students re-emerged as a major voting block. Here is a stat that shows how dramatic this student awakening has been: In 2015, my second election, a total of 277 people voted for Mayor in Ward 8, which is largely a student ward. By 2018, that figure more than tripled to 859.

As a result, the involvement of students in our local politics has had a large impact on our City decisions. In recent years, we have been able to approve the largest downtown investment project in the City’s history, increase eight-fold the amount of homes we are building in the City, and set and start to meet perhaps the most ambitious climate goals of any community in the country. A big part of why this has all happened is that the UVM Class of 2019 and your contemporaries saw a connection between these issues and your future, and weighed in at the ballot box on numerous votes.

Beyond this thank you, my first message to you is an invitation, a plea really, to stay here in Burlington beyond tomorrow. I hope every one of you is graduating with a sense that this City has contributed something positive and meaningful to your college experience. As a city and as a state, we need more of you to give back to this place by choosing to make Burlington your home for the long-term. For the 75 percent or so of you whose next step is elsewhere, we are not giving up on you: Come back and visit, and keep this wonderful place in your heart until you are able to return.

My second and main message to you, and one that I think the voting total information I just shared suggests you are open to and may be already acting on, is an appeal for your time: No matter where you land next, get involved with your local community as soon as possible. Over the coming years, as you are embarking on your careers, perhaps getting additional degrees or starting families, and maybe moving frequently, local engagement may feel periphery and easy to postpone. A local government professor of mine in graduate school captured this sentiment, saying in class one day, “it is easy to spend your whole life thinking you are just passing through.”

Don’t. Start showing up for local groups and initiatives as soon you unpack. Getting involved locally can have a huge impact on your own personal and professional life, on the community you make home, and even on the future of this country.

Here is how this worked for me.

I grew up here in Vermont in the 1970s and 1980s and left the state for college. Afterwards, contradictory to the plea I just made to you, I wasn’t yet ready to come back to the state, and I lived up and down the East Coast through my twenties. I never stopped thinking of myself as a Vermonter though, and I moved back to Burlington with my wife in the summer of 2002.

About two weeks after we got here, I received a phone call. It was Luke Albee on the phone, May’s dad, who I knew from my time as a Senator Leahy intern, and he asked me to run the state senate campaign of a candidate the Democrats had just recruited. I did, she won, and soon after I became the volunteer County Chair of the party and worked on dozens of other state legislative campaigns, and later a mayoral campaign. By the time I chose to run myself about a decade later, I knew a lot about how to win Vermont campaigns.

Everything else I got involved with in those years ended up having a surprisingly large impact on my life as well. Because I served as a volunteer airport commissioner, I had a front-row view of city activities and knew both that we needed new leadership, and that I could do the job. Serving on the board of ECHO dramatically expanded my relationships with Burlington community leaders, and serving on the board of the Turning Point Center, an addiction recovery group, gave me knowledge that I would later draw on as I guided Burlington’s response to the opioid crisis as mayor. It turns out that, at least for me, these involvements, which seemed then like contributions to others of my spare time, turned out to be both greatly enriching, and building blocks of my life here in Burlington.

As you consider what to invest your volunteer time into, I do encourage you to think about local government. To a degree that I did not grasp before I was elected, a successful city is built on the efforts of countless volunteers. Our small city has over 40 volunteer boards and commissions that contribute to the management of Burlington. This shows up in other ways, too: Tomorrow, we expect hundreds of volunteers to come out and plant trees in a natural area in the south end that we are trying to restore. As mayor, I pull together teams of unpaid advisors to consult with on almost every major decision. It definitely takes a village to run a village.

These volunteer efforts all contribute greatly to the quality of our local government, and I expect that you will find in life that the competence and capacity of your local government has a major impact on your home and quality of life, and indeed, likely more impact than any other level of government. Perhaps this should be an obvious point given the scope of what local government is responsible for: Here in Burlington, the City does everything from providing the water for your faucets and the electricity for your lights, to ensuring public safety, to running the airport, to supporting much of Burlington’s arts activity. Yet, somehow, I think effective and visionary local governance is something that many of us take for granted.

As mayor, I am highly aware that we get to live and enjoy today the dreams of our civic leaders of generations past. We get to bathe and barbeque at North Beach because 100 years ago, City leaders converted a farm into a beach for the soldiers returning from World War I. We can watch the sun setting over the Adirondacks from a swing on the waterfront boardwalk today because for more than 50 years, the City’s mayors have worked to remove oil tanks and other post-industrial debris. We can eat al fresco on Church Street today because a handful of civic leaders in the 1970s had the audacity to kick cars off the City’s main commercial street. And at those Church Street tables, we enjoy wholesome, farm-to-plate meals because my parents’ generation dreamed up food co-ops, farmers markets, and healthy meals for school kids.

Finally, another reason to get involved at the local level is that cities frequently serve as true laboratories of public innovation for the challenges of our time, even for challenges that are national in scope.

To make this point I would like to share a current initiative that we are working on, both as an example of this important truth, and because lives will be saved when more communities adopt the strategies that Burlington has pioneered. The example I’d like to share with you is the story of Burlington’s response to the opioid crisis.

While the opioid epidemic has hit the country unevenly, it is clearly a nationwide problem. A professor at Washington State, Gary Franklin, has called it “the worst man-made epidemic in history.” We are currently losing more than 70,000 Americans every year to drug overdose deaths, a figure greater than the number of Americans we lost in the entire Vietnam war.

Despite the national scale of this issue, and despite the federal government’s tragic role in sparking the epidemic through terrible regulation of opioid painkillers from the 1990s until very recently, the federal government has done little to date to turn this epidemic around.

In the fall of 2015, as Vermont opioid-related fatalities were climbing to previously unimaginable levels, with about as many people dying from opiate use as were dying in roadway crashes, homicides, and accidental gun incidents combined, Burlington realized that we could not rely on other levels of government to stop the dying and that no one was in charge of mounting a coordinated public health response. As a result, the City decided to take responsibility for leading the challenge. We put the police in charge because they do urgency well, hired the City’s first social worker to be our Opioid Policy Coordinator, and gave her an office next to the Chief of Police.

For the last two and a half years, we have coordinated a monthly meeting that we call Community Stat that convenes medical providers, treatment agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys, housing providers, recovery agencies, and many other partners in our response to this epidemic. Fifty to 75 agencies are at this meeting table every month. The meetings focus on data, science, and relentless follow up. Together at that table we have launched perhaps the country’s most robust constellation of initiatives to stop the opioid crisis of any region in the country.

Most of the initiatives focus on easing access to and reducing the stigma of the life-saving anti-addiction medicine buprenorphine, which is also known as Suboxone, in the settings that opioid users often find themselves in: emergency rooms, prisons, and needle exchanges. Six weeks ago Burlington police became the first police department in the country that we’re aware of to start screening arrestees for opioid use disorder, and offering immediate access to medicine for those who screen positive.

We have much more work to do. At the same time, it appears that this coordinated, local effort is finally producing results: Accidental opioid-related overdose deaths dropped 50 percent in our county in 2018, even as deaths rose by 20 percent in the rest of Vermont, and by about 2-3 percent nationally. I am very hopeful that we will bring this epidemic to a quick end when the interventions pioneered here are scaled through hospitals, prisons, needle exchanges, and police departments across the country. 

I share this story with you as an example of local government solving big problems, pursuing and implementing innovative strategies, and quite simply, helping people. I also share it with you because I think it holds some lessons for whatever work you may find yourselves doing next. Wherever you are, when you see crises impacting members of your community, I urge you to seek solutions and make it your job to help.

So, you almost-graduates of the University of Vermont Honors College: Wherever you land next, get involved. Look for civic efforts in your community that speak to you. Consider contributing to local government itself. I expect that what you’ll find will be nourishing for both you and your community in ways that may be hard to predict, but are likely to have greater and broader reach than you can imagine.

Thank you for the opportunity to share in this special, happy day. I wish you the best in all that you have ahead. Congratulations to the class of 2019!















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