Left in Andover: ‘Hippie invasion’ irritated, but ultimately benefited Vermont

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with Joyce Bressler. A leading member of the radical 1970s era Vermont Media Collective, Bressler arrived on the Burlington scene in 1971, a member of Gov. Deane Davis’ mythic “hippie invasion.”

The seeds for her exodus from New York City had been sown at a Black Panther rally a few years prior in Washington, D.C. In a random but indelible conversation, a fellow protester suggested “she go find some white people to organize.”  The idealistic young college student took the advice to heart. For the next decade, she stood on the frontlines of social change, helping create the “new” Vermont.

Joyce Bressler of the 1970s Vermont Media Collective today.

The Vermont Media Collective created its seminal  multi-media documentary Vermont Speaks for Itself in 1973. To view a clip, click here. Inspiration came from Lee Webb, an anti-Vietnam War activist and organizer of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group who articulated local interests conflicting with those of big business and the tourist industry as “Colonialism and Underdevelopment of Vermont.” The Collective’s mission was to organize working Vermonters around affordable housing, a living wage and access to medical and dental care.

Vermont Speaks for Itself presents as a collegial conversation between John Klar and Bernie Sanders, with some Annie Proulx Postcards thrown in. Although it was created 50 years ago, the film’s critique of unaffordable housing for working people, ubiquitous second-home ownership and lamentation for a lost agrarian way of life is of the moment.

The film clearly outlines the issues. I queried Bressler as to what her group of activists saw as the solution. Her equivocal response was that, as indicated by the title, they left the answers to the people themselves.

It is a testimony to the makers of the film, who were simultaneously involved in creating first generation food coops and free medical clinics, that the frames of undoctored, toothless Vermonters resonate just a little less than they once may have.

Promo for the documentary ‘Vermont Speaks for itself.’

While access to housing, dental care and good nutrition remain enormous challenges, Vermont has done a relatively good job at making medical coverage available at low or no cost to those in need.

The film, in its original multi-media documentary form, was shared extensively with state bureaucrats at the time. It thereby contributed to the relatively progressive culture of Vermont’s present day social service agencies.

As Yvonne Daley writes in her history Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks and Radicals Moved to Vermont, “While the more radical elements of the counterculture may have wanted to take over the state, it was the infiltration of less radical hippies, and people sympathetic to their causes, into every aspect of Vermont life, as parents and neighbors, teachers and carpenters, social workers and counselors, lawyers and bakers — and voters — that incrementally brought about the liberalization of Vermont.”

Bressler honed her political philosophy alongside the young Bernie Sanders as a member of the Liberty Union Party. In 1974, running for legislative office in Burlington, she debated Madeleine Kunin.

Bressler describes her style of political organizing as relational. Its effectiveness lay in her ability to forge personal connections. Her experience was from a patriarchal family background. An unflinching feminism propelled her to help found Burlington Free Clinic, a pioneering provider of abortions by means of a legal loophole.

‘Going up the Country’ offers a history of the ‘hippie invasion’ of Vermont.

Other activities included Free Vermont, helping start the North Country Star newspaper, serving as a VISTA volunteer supervisor and Mt Philo Collective in Charlotte.

She left the state in 1979 to pursue a graduate degree in student personnel services at New York University. But in the end, her truly heroic Vermont resume blocked her ability to be hired in college administration.

In the spirit of Abby Maria Hemenway, I believe it is important to include in our state history Vermonters like Joyce Bressler who have gone on to other places.

In the 1970s, I was in and out, traveling elsewhere in hopes of catching the epicenter of the counter-revolution, not feeling sure if Andover qualified. Hats off to Bressler and others like her, those who stayed and those who moved on, for helping re-imagine this place I am lucky to call home.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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