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Rep. John Killacky Publishes New Book Reflecting On His 30 Years Of Cultural Work

A photo of a person in a suit jacket and white button down shirt against a grey background
John Killacky, Courtesy
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Rep. John Killacky of South Burlington spent eight years as executive director of The Flynn Theater for the Performing Arts in Burlington. He is publishing a book of essays from his 30 years as an artist and advocate.

John Killacky is an artist, advocate, activist and legislator currently representing South Burlington in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Prior to his time in public office, Killacky spent eight years as the executive director of the Flynn Theater for the Performing Arts. He's also worked for other arts organizations across the country.

Now Killacky has written a new book titled because art: commentary, critique and conversation, which reflects on the last three decades of his cultural work.

VPR's Mary Engisch caught up with Rep. John Killacky to talk about the book and the intersection of his life in the arts and the Legislature. Their interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: First, can you give us a brief background about your life in the arts world, both in Vermont and elsewhere? 

John Killacky: Oh, I've had such a wonderful career. I started as a dancer in New York in the 1970s.

I worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, the San Francisco Foundation. And in 2010, I moved to Burlington to run the Flynn Center.

An image of a book cover with pink and white text reading because art: commentary, critiques & conversation
John Killacky, Courtesy
The cover of John Killacky's book, out Sept. 14.

What made you make that jump to public office? 

During my eight years of running the Flynn — I retired in 2018 — I found myself often testifying before the Legislature on issues concerning the nonprofit sector.

And as I was thinking of leaving the Flynn and retiring, I thought, well, what now can be my public service in this part of my career? And how I could give back. And I'm now serving my second term in the Vermont House of Representatives.

I understand in your recent sessions with the Legislature you've been working on several issues. I'd love to focus on one concerning recovery homes. Can you just first explain what recovery homes are in Vermont? 

My primary work has been on expanding the network of recovery homes. Because, you know, if you look at what we've just lived through in this pandemic, we've had a statewide record of overdose deaths.

There was a study done, and it’s about 250 recovery beds throughout the state. But the need is about 1,000 more.

And the state doesn't regulate recovery homes, but this bill that I've been working on — and it's been in play for the three years that I've been in the Legislature — is really to set up a network of best practices, provide toolkits, accreditation, in fact. And to really allow kind of ensuring a quality of standard in practices and in agreements.

Because recovery's intentional community. People join a recovery center. You know, it doesn't solve all the issues with substance use disorders, but it's a very powerful tool.

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You just mentioned that you've been working on it for the past three years that you've been in the Legislature, and the need is so much greater than the number of beds that are available. I'm wondering what are some of the stumbling blocks.

There's really two big issues that are in play. One is “not in my backyard.” So, communities really think it's OK to have a recovery home as long as it's not in their town or on their block.

And so, as we did with independent homes for people with disabilities 30 years ago, we've zoned them for single-family residences. And so the same thing, we're asking for that exemption in the law for that.

And then the second issue, and it's a very complex one, is in recovery, if there's six women in a home, and one of the women has a recurrence, it's very complicated, because you're all there in agreement to be dealing with recovery. But recurrence is an ongoing process in recovery.

And so how to temporarily remove that person safely? Because the last thing you want to do is if someone's using, to move them into a hotel, without support staff. We’ve been working on that really delicate matter, how to protect people.

I'd love to know how your work in the arts world sort of translates into collaborative approaches or compromises that you're making on different committee work. 

In the 70s, I was a dancer, and as a dancer, you learn sometimes you're a soloist, sometimes you're part of the core, and a group improvisation's always stronger. And so input is really important.

And resiliency and flexibility are really central to an artist's process.

"I think that my work as a legislator is informed by my artistic practices. I think I'm a better legislator because of it."

"I think that my work as a legislator is informed by my artistic practices. I think I'm a better legislator because of it."
Rep. John Killacky

The book, again, is called because art. And the part I'd love for you to share is the chapter about your spinal journey. 

It was 25 years ago that I had this surgery, and I woke up, quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down and six weeks in the rehab hospital.

I was sent home in a wheelchair, and I didn't know if I'd ever walk. And I took about three months to learn how to walk.

And so this chapter in the book really deals with my emotional and physical issues of living with this disability for 25 years. So here's a small section:

“Eleven years into my spinal journey, what I hoped to be temporary, must be accepted as permanent. Although I continue to mourn the physicality I once embodied, and dream of running unencumbered through the world, as I construct the days ahead, I still long for the life before.”

Now I wrote that in 2008. And it's still true today, Mary. I've been paraplegic, walking with his cane since 1996. Yet I still dream every night, as if I was fully able.

And what role does representation, as being someone who lives with a disability, as you legislate, what role does that represent? 

My cultural work always focused on activists and artists in the avant-garde, on the fringe of society, who're actually making change. And so I feel like I bring all my lived experiences in the same way I do during the book, because I found that in telling their stories, I was able to tell my own.

So now when I go into the Legislature, I hope that my work in Montpelier gives voice to the marginalized in our communities and shines light on their realities. Because I really want to work to ensure a better Vermont, that works for all of us.

John Killacky's book because art: commentary, critique & conversation is out Sept. 14. Some highlights include Killacky's essays on leadership, AIDS, arts producing, philanthropy, and legislating.

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