Sometimes, it’s not about fixing the problem. It’s about changing the conditions that created the problem in the first place. In other words, sometimes changing the underlying system to create a better future. And the eight Vermont Working Communities Challenge (WCC) Teams are doing exactly that kind of systems change work.
The Working Communities Challenge (WCC) is a partnership between the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (FRBB), the State of Vermont, and the Working Communities Challenge Steering Committee of statewide leaders, private funder, and the eight regional teams throughout Vermont, all who are working towards system change to strengthen Vermont’s rural communities. The Vermont Council on Rural Development is serving as the neutral facilitator supporting these teams across the state.
Increased Capacity for Community-Driven Economic Development
WCC is driven by community-identified needs and priorities rolled up to the team level, and supported with non-traditional funding. The Working Communities Challenge grants are being used to increase capacity: specifically investing in the people power needed to convene, coordinate and collaborate with people from all walks of life and from all sectors.
As the Lamoille County Initiative Director, Emily Rosenbaum says, “We truly believe that when you get the right people on the bus, you get to the right place.”
And WCC is doing exactly that.
In addition to ensuring that new voices are at the table for each of these conversations, there is much more that makes WCC different from other statewide efforts. Thanks to outreach, engagement, and various funding sources, each team has added capacity to support community-identified needs and priorities in more rural parts of the state both through new positions and stable funding for existing positions. Importantly, each team has one or more people filling the role of a neutral convenor: People who have the time and energy to coordinate and bring in new resources. This increased capacity combined with the efforts of the teams has attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in new funding, and provided an all hands on deck approach to solving big workforce challenges.
“We are a small State with hundreds of nonprofits working incredibly hard,” says WCC Steering Committee member Ellen McCulloch-Lovell. “But the idea of bringing everyone together to address the same challenges is a very captivating idea. There is real seriousness of purpose to this work and WCC members are successfully engaging across the State to share hope, lessons learned, and successes to inform statewide leadership for long-lasting impact.”
The eight Vermont teams certainly aren’t lacking drive, as they focus on interconnected issues such as workforce development, reducing intergenerational poverty, housing, childcare, transportation, support networks for new Vermonters, and engaging more diversity in communities.
Resources for Experimenting and Learning: A Systems Change Approach
“It’s not about simply putting a bandaid on a problem in an attempt to fix it, it’s about actually solving all of the areas that create the problem,” says White River Valley Initiative Director, Sarah Danly.
Working towards one approach for fixing a problem with the current system doesn’t create sustainability, but finding broader solutions does. And that sometimes takes time, resources, and the ability to test out solutions at different scales.
“Fixing the individual problem isn’t systems change,” says Southern Vermont Initiative Director, Alex Beck. “Identifying and addressing the obstacles needed to overcome the challenge? That is systems change.”
The Greater Barre team provides a prime example of systems change and what it looks like in a community.
Greater Barre has been focusing their work on single female head of households. These workers often hit multiple benefits cliffs as their wages increase, which come with real-life consequences of actually reducing their income as a result of a raise.
In the short term, the team has been able to curb some of the effects of the benefits cliffs by working with employers, community partners, private businesses, and resource coordinators: For example, the Farmers to You program provides access to fresh local produce and value-added agricultural products and the 185 Fund provides loans for emergencies such as heating, gas or food. In the next phase of their work, the Barre team will pilot a benefits cliff calculator and training with employers and resource coordinators. Through a deeper understanding of cause and effect, employers will be able to attract, retain and promote their workers and workers will have better systems of support as they navigate their careers. By creating local systems change, this team shows us that it’s possible to manifest state or even national-level changes to our workforce and benefits programs.
As the WCC teams model this approach, they’re looking at all of the challenges presented and working towards building a new system that addresses all obstacles.
“This is looking at people’s lives and their challenges, finding the reasons behind inadequate housing, inability to volunteer, not continuing with education,” says McCulloch-Lovell. “All of these things help families thrive and individual well-being is economic development.”
Solutions to Problems Developed in Partnership with Experts by Experience
Each of the eight teams have made it a top priority to go deep into communities and find the voices typically not at the table.
“What is interesting about this project, is that it really provides the space for people with lived experiences to help shape a solution and build a system that works,” says President of the Preservation Trust of Vermont and WCC Steering Committee member, Ben Doyle. “You don’t see this in other economic development projects and that’s what makes this work so unique.”
The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) and partner organization Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) have been asking themselves for many years how to approach economic development in today’s world.
Now as one of the organizations supporting a WCC team, BDCC is convening a group invested in relationship-building and innovative thinking for creating an inclusive community as they work to build a “New Vermonter” community network to invite and welcome new residents through refugee resettlement as part of their grant.
“After Tropical Storm Irene destroyed our area in 2011, we could have come up with what economic development and recovery looked like ourselves but instead said, ‘let’s ask the people that live here what they want,’” says Southern Vermont Initiative Director, Alex Beck.
With that community input in mind, BDCC knows that it’s about the relationships you build to ensure all voices with different experiences are at the table to have a vibrant and equitable community, and WCC is stepping in to provide the resources and funding to make this possible.
“We now have individuals represented in a way that is bringing in new voices every day to the conversation. We can’t ignore these voices here in Vermont, nor should we,” adds Beck.
What Comes Next
The teams are creating opportunities for policy change and new civic infrastructure through this level of community-driven economic development. From there, the teams will share their findings and approaches to this effective cross-sector collaboration when applied to housing, transportation, childcare, the benefits cliffs, racial equity, resource navigation, workforce development, and other interconnected systems.
Teams have shared their initial findings and successes with Vermonters through their first report, generated and released by the WCC Steering Committee fall of 2022. Over the next two years, the teams will continue to share their findings and recommendations for how to build a stronger system for Vermonters.
Whenever you’re ready to become a partner, the WCC Steering Committee is ready to begin working with you to ensure that everyone who wants to live and work in Vermont has the tools and resources they need to thrive.
“This is an exciting and inspiring time for communities, despite the economic and social challenges we face,” says Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Director of Community Collaboration, Jessica Savage. “If we can imagine a different future, one where all Vermonters have what they need to live and thrive, we can make it happen. That’s the power of the Vermont Working Communities Challenge.”