I began this project, “Women Town Clerks of Vermont – Reflections on Democracy” in the summer of 2008 at a time when gas prices nationwide were at the highest in history, and when a historical presidential campaign, featuring a woman, and for the first time ever, a Black man, was in full swing and captivating our country. It was a time when it seemed as if the entire world was watching our upcoming election and seeing it as a test of our collective character, and it was at a time that Americans at home were showing great anxiety about our economy and dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and torture. At the same time the very ideas of democracy and citizenship and our system of government were being tested and questioned both inside and outside the US. And it was becoming clear that we were losing faith in our institutions including the government. Like lots of Americans I had been hearing over and over that our democracy was in trouble. That idea was deeply disturbing and I wanted to know how dangerous it was.
To get answers, I came home to Vermont and turned to town clerks in small Vermont towns to find out what they thought. It seemed the clerks were exactly the right people. They were among the first officials appointed to keep our records when our young democracy was forming. They are the first level of government and the closest to the people. They are the government that you can stop on the street and get answers or make a complaint to. Clerks are still the most accessible of any government official and the least likely to forget who pays their salaries. They return phone calls, and will stop on the street to listen to complaints, they shop where everyone else shops and their children and grandchildren go to the same local schools. They are our first firewall against abuses of democracy. They are the neighborhood watchers of our most cherished expression of democracy - elections. With that in mind I decided to ask them about the questions that seemed to be on our collective minds in 2008 and it appears, are still on our minds in 2010 as we approach another consequential election and continue to be anxious about the economy and deeply concerned with another war.
This exhibition is about the clerks and who they are and what they said to me. It is also about encouraging us to replace the many voices of our time that are sometimes angry, sometimes intolerant, and always loudly claiming to speak for us, with our own voices, based on our examined thoughts and civil dialogues with each other. Hearing the clerks’ voices should encourage us to hear our own voices. Democracy is about encouraging us to hear our own voices.
Sandra Elkin New York City 2010