By Dan Smith, VCRD board member and president and CEO of The Vermont Community Foundation, as seen in

Vermont faces a set of economic and demographic challenges that, if left unaddressed, will continue to erode communities, widen the gap between regions and stretch the distance between poor families and wealthy families in our state.

What was once a bedrock article of faith in our culture — that hard work will get you ahead — is being called into question as never before.

Nationwide, children born in the 1950s had a better than 80 percent chance of earning more than their parents. For children born after 1980 it’s pretty much a coin toss. At home, the middle class has been shrinking for decades and there is no region in Vermont where a child born in the bottom 20 percent has a better than 1 in 10 shot of joining the top 20 percent.

Roughly 40 percent of births in Vermont are paid for by Medicaid; roughly 40 percent of children show up for kindergarten unprepared to learn; and more than 40 percent aren’t continuing their education after high school.

That’s left 46,000 families in Vermont, nearly 1 in 4, struggling to make ends meet, and close to 16,000 children in our state living in poverty. Vermont was the only state where the poverty rate rose last year.

To address these challenges, restore the vitality of our communities, and close the opportunity gap, Vermont needs to cultivate a new generation of local leadership.

The 2018 Community Leadership Summit hosted by the Vermont Council on Rural Development is focused on laying the groundwork for local leadership.

The summit is a chance for new and emerging leaders to join veterans of our school and select boards, statewide experts, and others to share what works, what challenges are vexing them, and to brainstorm innovative strategies to improve civic life and grow the breadth of opportunity in our communities.

There is so much potential in the hyper-local. It is where we can get our hands dirty and get things done. Participants will be those who see local needs, are focused on rallying partners on projects ranging from community day care centers to trail networks to town economic development committees and local food sheds.

This summit will feature skills workshops, group dialogues, and strategy sessions on the future of community leadership in Vermont. The event will include a “leadership fair” sharing offerings and opportunities from leadership programs and supporting organizations. It will close with a reception honoring all participants for their commitments to local action, and the presentation of the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s 2018 Community Leadership Award.

The transfer of knowledge from one generation of leaders to the next, the infusion of new thinking to address persistent challenges, and the cross pollination of effective strategies across the hills and hollows of our far-flung communities offers a remarkable opportunity to build our resilience as a state.

If you see the potential in your community; if you’re a community-minded change-maker, or if you simply want to better understand the tools for engaging in the strategic direction of your community: join us Oct. 1 at Castleton University.

I’m especially excited for this year’s summit because we’ve made closing the opportunity gap the top priority of the foundation. To close that gap, we need strong communities in which we understand and respect each other. We need communities that offer a sense of potential. Getting there will take local energy, leadership and initiative.

Are you ready to make a difference? I’ll see you at the summit.