As an organization dedicated to supporting locally-defined progress of Vermont’s rural communities, the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) felt an instant spark of connection to the Vermont Working Communities Challenge (WCC).

The Working Communities Challenge is a partnership between the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (FRBB), the WCC Steering Committee of statewide leaders, private funders, the State of Vermont, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, and eight regional teams located throughout Vermont. For the next three years, the eight teams will identify and support ground-level efforts towards systems change to strengthen their rural Vermont communities – a primary mission for VCRD.

WCC originally launched in 2019 with a planning grant and VCRD was brought on board as a consultant for the participating Vermont teams. By fall of 2021, VCRD hired Jessica Savage as the Director of Community Collaboration, creating a new position for the organization to provide a key level of support to all eight teams.

Whether it is technical assistance, side coaching, strategic planning support, making statewide connections, or simply serving as a sounding board to the teams, Savage is there supporting each of the teams.

“These teams have huge goals with complex root challenges,” explains Savage. “Each team is working hard to be as inclusive, collaborative and innovative as possible, so that they address not just one-off problems but the actual systems that need to change to meet community needs. It’s inspiring to witness the power in their approaches and I’m honored to be there to support them when needed.”

Focus areas for each of the teams touch areas necessary to Vermont communities such as workforce development, reducing intergenerational poverty, housing, childcare, transportation, support networks for new Vermonters, and engaging more diversity in communities.

Savage takes great pride in her support for each of the teams and the work they are accomplishing throughout Vermont.

“By connecting these teams to VCRD and FRBB resources, I feel like we are making their work a little easier,” said Savage. “These projects are not just going to remove barriers to workforce participation in their own communities, but are real-time learning opportunities for all of Vermont. The WCC approach is purposefully different, and I’m excited to see that approach bearing fruit already.”

The WCC program is one of many FRBB initiatives closely tied to the Federal Reserve’s

mandate of Maximum Sustainable Employment. What makes it align so well with VCRD’s mission is its commitment of multi-year, major funds focused on cross-sector team leadership, systems change and community engagement.

“We are seeing these teams assembling leadership among organizations which have never collaborated before,” said Savage. “They are bringing people with lived experience to the table with business, nonprofit and public sector leaders and uncovering solutions to seemingly intractable problems.”

For instance, the WCC Southern Vermont team has helped welcome over 100 Afghan refugees through their WCC efforts – accomplished in an incredibly short timeframe thanks to tremendous volunteers and members of the team ensuring their new neighbors had the necessary resources to begin settling into their new home.  In addition, the team has been delivering DEI workshops to local employers, connecting language learning professionals to better collaborate, and much more to create even more welcoming communities across Southern Vermont.

Meanwhile in northern Vermont, the Lamoille County team received a Health Equity grant from the Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont Community Foundation to employ a resource navigator to serve as an in-person support to individuals seeking service navigation for topics such as housing, recovery, childcare, and employment.

“Some people are able to find what they need on our virtual resource hub or by visiting an organization,” explains Emily Rosenbaum of the Lamoille County Working Communities Challenge Team. “But for many people, trauma, substance use, transportation issues, or a host of other factors create barriers to accessing resources. A navigator who pushes into people’s community centers can help people access complex systems and the economy.”

Ultimately, the goal of the Vermont WCC is to change systems to remove barriers and make difficult problems easier to solve. That will look different in different parts of Vermont, but the power of communities coming together with dedicated people will be at the heart of this work, and that’s where VCRD sees commonality of cause with its mission and purpose.

“Helping Vermonters build prosperous and resilient communities through democratic engagement, marshaling resources, and collective action is what we do,” said Brian Lowe, Executive Director of VCRD. “The work of  the eight WCC Vermont teams creates a new way for local leaders to make systemic changes, and we’re here to support them over the long-term.”

For more than 20 years, VCRD has worked with communities across the state to help identify local priorities, rally to line up volunteers and resources to take action, and build a shared, vibrant vision for the future. Adding WCC to the list of programming support was the perfect complement to the foundation of VCRD.