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Hardwick's Karen Shaw is from the 'agricultural class,' and she doesn't see much hope for national unity

A photo from the perspective on top of a lit-up green and yellow john deere tractor with a barn the distance against the orange and blue light of a dusk sky
Karen Shaw's farm in Hardwick.

Karen Shaw is a friend of mine who lives on a dairy farm in Hardwick. She's given me good advice about getting rid of rats in my barn. Last spring, she gave me a handful of potatoes to plant that turned into more potatoes than I know what to do with. She has really strong opinions about pretty much everything, so I figured she'd have some ideas about class. And she did.

This story is the third installment of a five-part series called "What class are you?" Follow the series here.

Here's Karen Shaw.

Erica: "What class are you?"

Karen: "No class. Agricultural class."

Erica: "When I ask that question, what am I talking about?"

Karen: "Most people think it's income. I think it's refinement. How do you differentiate between a coarse person and a refined person? Manners, intelligence, values. My grandmother was an Irish peasant, came over here from Ireland, but she was the classiest person that I've ever known. She was totally uneducated. But she was just a wonderful person. But she was named an ‘ignorant peasant’. I guess that’s what they called her. But she was a super person. And there's a lot of people like that around here."

Erica: "Part of the reason I'm asking the question is, nobody ever talks about it about class. But I think everybody thinks about it a lot."

Karen: "Everybody thinks they're middle class."

Erica: "What do you think they think that means?"

Karen: "They're not rich and they're not poor. But a lot of poor people think they're middle class."

Erica: "And what about rich people?"

Karen:" Well, rich seems to be getting more each year. I mean, we used to think a millionaire was rich, and now we think it's a billionaire. You notice Bernie stopped ranting about millionaires. Now he only rants about billionaires, since he has become one."

"I mean, we'll pretty much help anybody that needs help, regardless of their political opinion, if they — if they're stuck on the roadside or hungry or something, we help them. We don't have to like them."
Karen Shaw

Erica: "I think that part of the reason that I'm interested in this question is, I think it gets at the ways that people right now are so divided. There's a big cultural division that's happening. And we think it's all politics. But there's so much more underneath that. And that's what I'm trying to figure out. Does class have to do with these divisions? And what is that?"

Karen: "Well, why is it that when you go to Craftsbury and Greensboro, they all have Black Lives Matter signs out there? They’re wealthy people. And when you go to the back roads and see these people living in broken down house trailers and little cottages, they have Trump signs out. How does that jive? I don't understand it. I think they're more real. I think these people who have to struggle to live have more of a sense of reality. And although Trump is a loudmouth, rich guy, he talks straight to the people."

Erica: "How do we all live in the same town? We have that in common. How do you connect the people together?"

Karen: "I don't think you can connect them. We're so diverse. We’re so far apart. We’re polite… Vermonters are polite. But they're opinionated. And they're set in their ways."

Erica: "So you’ve been around long enough to know this… that classic Vermont Republicanism is generous. They’re also hard-headed…"

Karen: "We're still like that. I mean, we'll pretty much help anybody that needs help, regardless of their political opinion, if they — if they're stuck on the roadside or hungry or something, we help them. We don't have to like them."

Erica: "But that's my question, then. When I asked you, ‘how do you bridge some of this discourse…’"

Karen: "You can't…"

Erica: "But you just said you do…"

Karen: "You help each other. But you're not going to meld your opinions. You're going to keep your opinion. Well, people do change. I was a dyed-in-the-wool Bernie supporter, you know, left-winger, and now I support Trump."

More from Vermont Public: Irasburg photographer John Miller on approaching neighbors with curiosity, humility

Erica: "So what do we do?"

Karen: "You tell me what we do. I don't know. I don't think that there's any compromise. We've got to divide the country and some of us live in one half and some of us live in another."

Erica: "Yeah, but that means we don't get to live in the same place. And that would be stupid. I mean… you gave me potatoes."

Karen: "Well, I give food to everybody. I don't know what the answer is. But as you said, everybody's angry. I'm angry all the time."

Erica: "What does it mean that we like each other and respect each other and we just so thoroughly disagree?"

Karen: "Well. I don't know. Some famous guy said, ‘There's nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow stripe and dead armadillos.’"

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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