Vermont communities get $1.9M to take on poverty, joblessness, underrepresentation
Boston Fed's Working Communities Challenge reaches into rural New England
Bob Flint calls his hometown of Springfield, Vermont, “real Vermont,” a bucolic place of mountains, forests, and resilience. The place he remembers from his childhood was also prosperous, busy with industry and good jobs. But then industry left, and people lost work. Now, nearly 2 in 10 people there live in poverty.
On Thursday, Springfield was one of four Vermont community teams chosen to receive $300,000 grants as part of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Communities Challenge program. Greater Barre, Lamoille County, and Winooski were also chosen.
The three-year grants will support local teams as they tackle specific challenges, from lowering poverty (Greater Barre) and unemployment (Lamoille County) to amplifying diverse voices in decision-making (Winooski).
In Springfield, where Flint is part of a team leading WCC efforts, the goal is increased workforce participation. Ultimately, he said, it’s about making a difference in people’s lives.
“These are our friends and our neighbors, and we need to be able to provide them not only resources but, maybe more importantly, hope,” Flint said.
Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren said a pandemic is a difficult time to start this work. “But I think it's also the most important time to do this kind of work,” he added.
“Low-and-moderate income individuals in our communities have clearly been disproportionately affected by what's happened. And we need to find creative ways to get to a better outcome,” Rosengren said, speaking at a virtual celebration of the grants Thursday with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott and local WCC leaders and supporters.
Scott said the state has learned during the pandemic how important it is to strengthen small cities and towns and diversify its economy. The grant money, combined with the collaboration built into the WCC model, can help Vermont emerge from the pandemic stronger, he said.
“Working together and all pulling in the same direction is how we do things in Vermont,” he said, “so I'm glad to see it's such an essential part of this program.”
WCC in Vermont funded by $1.9M in state, private, and not-for-profit money
The Working Communities Challenge is under the Boston Fed’s Working Places umbrella. It’s also an expansion of the Working Cities Challenge program, which began in 2013 in New England’s smaller, post-industrial cities.
The Working Places model unites community groups that may not normally interact – say business and social services – to tackle persistent problems, capitalize on emerging opportunities or underutilized assets, and achieve measurable progress.
WCC launched in 2019 in Vermont, and 27 communities competed for the grants. Besides the $300,000 awarded to each of the four communities, the program includes an additional $700,000 in planning, action, and evaluation grants, for a total of $1.9 million in state, private, and not-for-profit support.
WCC Vermont communities look to elevate voices, lower unemployment
In Winooski, Vermont’s most diverse community and home to a large population of people of color, the WCC is focused on elevating the voices of underrepresented people in local decision-making. Its plans include creating an Equity Commission to ensure fair representation and hiring an Equity Director to lead their efforts.
“In my culture, we say that we cannot a pick flower with one finger, but if we work as a community, we’ll be able to bring more ideas and support the work everyone is trying to achieve,” said Yacouba Jacobo Bogré, a member of Winooski’s Working Communities Challenge leadership team.
East of Winooski, the 10 towns in Lamoille County see big benefits from the state’s natural beauty and appeal to tourists. But during the pandemic, they’ve also learned the downside of dependence on it. Tasha Wallis, who is leading Lamoille’s WCC efforts, said local unemployment was below 4% before the pandemic, but soared to 26% by May as tourism plummeted. The Lamoille initiative is focusing on creating and retaining jobs through increased student employment, worker training, and higher education.
“We are very much hoping with the work that we will do in Lamoille that we can look to a more economically diverse Lamoille County with greater opportunities for all,” Wallis said.
In Greater Barre, WCC leaders are aiming to lower poverty, specifically for single female head of households. In Barre, 55% of that demographic is below the federal poverty line. Local WCC leader Tawnya Kristin said the goal is to lower that rate by 15% in a decade by building a workforce development system that allows service providers and employers to quickly collaborate, so the women get the support they need.
Kristin said the WCC is an opportunity to build a new, post-pandemic economic future.
“We will all benefit as Vermonters,” she said, “but especially women, who have been the most impacted economically during this time.”