Building a flourishing democracy requires many things of the citizens and residents of the United States. One of the most important things democracy requires is our attention – not only on the issue of the day at the national level, but also on the challenges we can impact closer to home in our communities.
Our organization, the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), is a neutral, non-partisan organization that helps bring people together to focus their collective attention on projects that help build a stronger shared civic life and better future.
This work is often at the community level. VCRD believes in the local wisdom of the towns we work in. We bring a community together and listen – what are the assets, what are the needs, and what ideas for action do people have? Then, we ask people to choose their priorities, organize local task forces to help focus collective attention on those priorities, and connect those task forces to resources that help make a project a reality.
This approach – of focusing the collective attention of a community on two or three locally-defined priorities – has generated some amazing results over the years. The work takes time, but we’ve seen ideas for new child care centers, housing, wastewater systems, community events, and more come to life across Vermont as individuals work together on common goals. Last year, we worked in to Milton, Highgate, Concord, Brownington, and Putney to help identify and begin the work on projects like these.
Every town is different in what it decides to prioritize, but the work is rejuvenating. Collective attention on shared projects helps spur progress. It creates a sense of momentum, strengthens the civic fabric that connects us all, and rallies people around a positive vision for the future in a community.
VCRD also works at the individual level. The organization creates new connections for established and emerging leaders across the state. “Leader” can be a tricky word – we see people of all backgrounds stepping forward every day in volunteer or official roles to lead in their communities.
At a time when there is more Federal funding to support communities available than usual, and as we experience changes like the broadband build out, new people moving to the state for various reasons, and an economy that is changing from the pressures of inflation and a pandemic, we think it is critical to be investing in leaders of all types working to advance projects creating public value in their communities.
This support can be in the form of workshops that help people learn how to access Federal funding through our Vermont Community Leadership Network, or programs designed to support people and projects that can make a community more resilient, save a community money, or spur innovation through our Climate Economy Initiative. This support can also be helping local leaders convene at a regional level to think about shared opportunities and challenges – whether that is housing, childcare, or otherwise.
All of this work, at the community or individual level, is focusing collective attention on advancing projects and strengthening the confidence, connections, and ability of local leaders – broadly defined – to get things done. VCRD also works at the state level, pulling together what we hear and learn in communities to share with policymakers and advance causes that have practical value for communities across Vermont.
At the community level, we are excited to be joining with people in Northfield to begin working with that community to identify their priorities. The process will kick off on March 21 at 4:30pm at the Northfield Middle / High School with forums to discuss assets, challenges, and opportunities for action, along with a free community dinner. Details are available at bit.ly/FutureNorthfield.
Part of our work is also sharing some of the opportunities and challenges we are seeing across the state, and how we are listening, adapting, and trying to meet the needs we are seeing through local media outlets and we look forward to sharing more of our work with Vermonters. Join our newsletter at www.vtrural.org to stay up to date on different opportunities as well.
To paraphrase the American poet Amanda Gorman, our nation is not broken – but it is unfinished. Focusing our collective attention on projects that matter for the future in our communities, and building the civic fabric and sense of common purpose that helps get things done, are critical ingredients of a strong democracy. It can be easy to overlook the importance of volunteering or taking on roles in your town, but in a time of significant change, our communities represent a new frontier of opportunity.
Brian Lowe is the executive director at the Vermont Council on Rural Development.