By Olga Peters, as seen in The Commons:

Vermont runs on volunteerism and local leaders. They might serve as library trustees, as organizers of a local meal site, or in an elected seat on their Selectboard.

Yet, while many people serve, not all can count on a network of peers or a way to learn new leadership skills to advance community projects.

That’s the impetus behind the launch of the Vermont Community Leadership Network, an online portal that will serve as a place for leaders of all stripes to network, take free workshops, and focus on community projects.

The network is a project of Montpelier-based Vermont Council on Rural Development (VRDC), whose staff noticed a statewide need to support community leaders, and leaders-in-the-making — especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has heightened the need for local volunteers and leaders.

“Vermont is facing major challenges as we respond to the pandemic, and Vermonters are stepping forward in powerful ways to support their neighbors and communities,” explained Jon Copans, VRDC’s climate-economy-model communities-program director.

“As an organization, we have learned so much from the regular gatherings we’ve hosted of those providing mutual aid in their towns,” he continued. “The sharing of ideas, successes, and struggles is something we think will be valuable in an ongoing way for formal and informal leaders working on a variety of projects across Vermont.”

Starting Sept. 15, the leadership network will offer a series of free online workshops. The series will alternate between skill-building and community projects.

The first workshop focuses on how to host effective meetings during COVID-19. The following session will look at how communities can improve access to child care.

Local leaders critical to recovery

In Copans’ opinion, leadership in Vermont takes “many shapes and sizes,” and people take on official and informal roles, from serving on the school board to hosting an exercise class in the park.

They’re all important, he said.

“Local leaders are critical to our state’s ongoing recovery and renewal, and that is why providing them with more support is a no-brainer,” Copans said. “At VCRD, we see strong value in bringing these leaders together as a network. Skill building is a component of this work, but just as important, if not more so, is the mutual support and learning leaders can provide to each other.”

Membership in the Vermont Community Leadership Network is free. Along with the online workshops, the VCRD has developed a downloadable Community Leadership Guide. Printed copies are available upon request.

Part one of the guide, Tools for Community Leaders, includes practical advice in sections on Framing a Process for Public Engagement, Inviting the Public, Communicating with the Community, Developing a Community Vision, Setting Priorities for Action, Managing Effective Meetings, Dealing with Differences, Facilitating in Demanding Moments, Recognizing Diversity and Advancing Equity and Inclusion, Budgeting and Fundraising, and Using Virtual Engagement Tools.

The second part of the guide offers practical action steps, advice, and resources as blueprints for 20 sample community projects: Develop an Agricultural Network, Boost the Arts and Creative Economy, Improve Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety and Accessibility, Expand Local Broadband Connectivity, Address Childcare Needs in Your Community, Grow the Local Climate Economy, Expand and Improve Community Communications, Develop a Community Center, Develop a Co‐Working space, Build a Town Economic Development Committee, Develop Events that Strengthen Community, Improve and Develop Housing, Market Your Community to Visitors, Advance Outdoor Recreation and Trails, Build a Community Park or Green Space, Revitalize Your Downtown or Village Center, Build a School and Community Partnership, Address Substance Use in Your Community, Advance Village Wastewater Infrastructure Projects, and Create a Community Wi‐Fi Hotspot.

Members can also join what the VRDC calls “Action Centers,” small cohorts focused on a single topic area such as increasing access to child care in their communities or making affordable housing available.

Along with networking and training, these centers also provide mentor pairings and a place to share strategies.

Going forward, Copans said that the leadership network will grow as the leaders do.

“Finally, we also plan to provide some online venues for more informal connection and networking,” he said. “Our approach is to build as we go, learning from each other, and constantly gathering feedback and input on future direction.”

‘Wherever we line up in common purpose’

The VCRD formally launched the network during an Aug. 27 online event.

In his opening remarks, VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello said that he is inspired by community leaders.

“The center of world democracy is not in the [United Nations] alone or in Washington, D.C., alone,” Costello said. “It’s everywhere people line up together.”

“It’s in Vermont town halls, church basements, businesses, coworking spaces, wherever we line up in common purpose to advance local priorities,” he said. “Those that engage, prioritize, and unite become a collective spear point of activity, and they change their towns, they change Vermont.”

Costello added that those who catalyze their neighbors share and give power to the whole community. He hoped the Vermont Community Leadership Network would become a “backbone” for leaders across the state.

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., welcomed the online audience from his home in Middlesex. As the video stream froze intermittently, he apologized for the lack of bandwidth there.

He added that while Vermonters seem to take pride in how their state is handling the COVID-19 pandemic, people are also worried about how the state will recover. Leahy viewed the VCRD and community leaders as playing a role in the state’s recovery.

Leadership in action

Noel Riby-Williams, of Barre, a student at the University of Vermont, shared her thoughts on leadership.

“To me, leadership is unity and hope for a community to come together and make necessary changes in their society,” she said.

“I don’t really believe I was chosen to be a leader — leadership chose me,” Riby-Williams said, adding that as a Black woman in Montpelier, her life itself is activism work.

“I truly believe that it’s our duty as citizens to see problems in our society and work together to fix them, and that is what patriotism really is to me,” she said, adding that everyone can be a leader and that change is possible.

Riby-Williams said in a July interview with Downstreet Housing & Community Development that as a member of the Racial Justice Alliance at Montpelier High School, she was one of the students who led the school to raise a Black Lives Matter flag in 2018.

Lisa Sullivan, proprietor of Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington, said that when she moved to the state with her family 20 years ago, she quickly learned that “the opportunities to engage in Vermont are vast.”

“So once you say ‘yes’ to that first committee, you have lots of leadership opportunities thrown your way,” she said.

Leadership to Sullivan has meant that “you have to roll up your sleeves and get the work done.”

She remembers helping Laura Sibilia, now an independent state representative from Dover, with the area’s first Vermont Wine and Harvest Festival. Thanks to a downpour, the event field was drenched.

As a solution, the organizers decided to spread approximately 200 bales of hay over the wet ground.

“And I looked at my hands and I looked at the hay and I said to Laura, ‘Laura, you may not know this about me, but I’m a little bit of princess,’” Sullivan said. “And [Laura] handed me a pair of gloves, and we loaded up the trailer with the hay.”

Sullivan also gently poked at the Vermont habit of not changing something because that’s-the-way-it’s-always-been.

“Sometimes we take ‘no’ for an answer too easily,” she said. “I think it’s really important that we push through those things.”

Charlie Hancock of Montgomery Center said he started volunteering on the local planning commission because he wanted to make changes to his municipality’s Town Plan. He is now in his fourth year as chair of the Montgomery Selectboard.

“Leadership isn’t about strengthening ourselves,” he said. “It’s about strengthening the whole enterprise, the community itself, however we define that community, and part of it is identifying others with that spark and fostering the leaders of tomorrow.”

Hancock added that when leaders think about success, they need to consider what “success will look like after we’re gone — and if that success is impossible without us, and the individual, then we’ve failed.”

The other things small, rural communities need, he said, is more capacity in the form of financial support from the state and federal governments. Often, small towns lack the wealth in their Grand List for large public-works projects such as broadband or wastewater infrastructure.

He added that successful projects, however, empower communities. Hancock said he looked forward to the launching of the Vermont Community Leadership Network because so many communities are wrestling with the same problems.

Creating stronger networks will help everyone, he said.