This blog is for those wanting to keep up to date on all the work that the Vermont Council on World Affairs is doing around the world.

Monday, November 14, 2016

What does it mean to be a “true” Vermonter?: A spotlight on Ambassador Robert Ford

If you know a bit about Vermont, you’re probably aware of the age-old dispute on what it means to be a “true” Vermonter. Some say you need to be born here, with at least one native parent; others argue both parents should be native, or that even several generations of Vermont lineage are required to claim Vermonter status. The debate is usually carried out in good humor, but the general consensus is that at a minimum, a person needs to have been born and raised within the borders of the state to claim this prestigious title of “true” Vermonter. Although I fit the definition I have provided, I’m going to make the argument today that to be a “true” Vermonter, one doesn’t need to prove lifelong residency or bloodlines.
In the ever-changing and globalized world we live in, a Vermonter should be defined as someone who lives here, and has brought with him a wealth of knowledge and insight from wherever he hails; someone who is dedicated to using his background to contribute positively to the growth and advancement of our beautiful state and its citizens: an #802Diplomat, if you will.

To prove my point, we are going to take a look at Ambassador Robert Ford, the recently retired U.S. foreign service officer who now calls St. Johnsbury, Vermont his home. A diplomat in the official sense, Ford was born in Denver, Colorado, but for much of his adult life, was based out of the Baltimore and DC area. After graduating with his master’s degree in Advanced International Studies from Johns Hopkins University, he served in the Peace Corps in Morocco where he experienced his first immersion in the Arab language and culture.


Beginning in 1985, Ford served for the U.S. government, with assignments in Cameroon, Bahrain, Algeria, and Iraq, among other states. His position as the U.S. Ambassador to Syria rounded out his career in foreign service. Ford’s departure was punctuated with measured differences between his and the U.S. government’ visions for foreign policy in Syria. Readjusting to civilian life, Ambassador Ford has embraced the opportunity to speak his mind on U.S. foreign policy in regards to the crisis in Syria in interviews, special appearances, and in his position as a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Ford has also become engaged in issues relating to his expertise in his new home of Vermont, the state he and his wife, Alison Barkley (also a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer), fell in love with after several years of renting a vacation home here. In addition to speaking at the Vermont International Film Festival’s screening of “A Syrian Love Story” (sponsored by the VCWA), Ford has become engaged in the refugee resettlement process in Rutland, advocating for a compassionate and open-minded reception of the soon-to-be new Vermont residents from Syria.

While there has been pushback on the decision to welcome those seeking refuge from the disastrous Syrian civil war, evidence shows that Vermont is already, albeit very slowly, moving in the direction of greater racial and ethnic diversity. Do we fight this inevitable change and then get left behind as the world adapts to these shifts around us? Or do we embrace the transformation, upholding Vermont’s reputation as a progressive and innovative state that it has been known as since its inception?

Ambassador Robert Ford, while not a textbook Vermonter, embodies the spirit of what it means to hold that distinction. Times have changed since Vermont became the first state in the Republic to outlaw slavery, but we have the opportunity to continue our legacy of being inclusive social trendsetters on the right side of history, as the entire world becomes increasingly globalized every day. Part of this inclusivity entails expanding our definition of who is allowed to boast the title of “Vermonter” to those who help move our state forward with this vision in mind.

Ambassador Ford, with the extensive international experience he carries and has been using to the benefit of our state since he settled here, qualifies as a “true” Vermonter, as does anyone who lives here and demonstrates a dedication and commitment to advancing Vermont in its values, while ensuring it stays abreast with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world. Ambassador Ford is an #802Diplomat in every sense of the phrase: who else do you think is worthy of sporting the title of a “true” Vermonter?

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