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Vermont’s Working Communities Challenge adapts during pandemic disruption Vermont’s Working Communities Challenge adapts during pandemic disruption

Competition adjusts on the fly as critical milestone approaches Competition adjusts on the fly as critical milestone approaches

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July 16, 2020

Like everything everywhere, the Working Communities Challenge and its work to improve life for residents in struggling rural areas of Vermont have been disrupted by COVID-19.

Currently, the eight regional teams in the initiative are seeking one of four $300,000 grants to tackle chronic challenges in their communities. But the intensive in-person training that would normally be ongoing as they strengthen their plans before a fall deadline is impossible due to social distancing requirements. All learning is now remote.

Meanwhile, the problems they identified have evolved or, in some cases, changed completely. And there are more obstacles as they seek to connect with each other and find new ways to face familiar challenges.

But the initiative’s leadership said the program is still making good progress. Rebecca Foster, a member of the Vermont initiative’s steering committee, said there’s real urgency to maintain the momentum from before the pandemic.

“I think the program is definitely on track,” said Foster, director of Efficiency Vermont, which advocates for affordable and sustainable energy use. “And I think the work we’ve done pre-COVID and since March is going to make a difference in these communities.”

In competition for limited funds, teams turning to each other for help

The initiative, launched in Vermont last year, is built on the successful model from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge. Both initiatives are now under the Working Places umbrella.

The model takes on persistent challenges and uncovers community assets by relying on collaboration between community leaders from different sectors that might not organically interact, like business and social services. In Vermont, teams are focusing on issues like intergenerational poverty and workforce development.

But because of the pandemic, the eight Vermont teams are meeting only virtually as they use $20,000 planning grants to turn their ideas into formal action plans. Those plans will be assessed by a jury within the steering committee, which will determine which four will be chosen for the three-year, $300,000 grants to execute their initiatives.

Mary Lou Krambeer, a consultant to the northern New England initiative, said something is inevitably lost in the lack of personal contact during this phase. But she thinks teams are handling it well, and it’s had minimal impact on progress.

“It’s a moment in time, right? What are the choices?” she said. “I think we are connecting pretty deeply with people, and we’re being very open to hearing what they need and want.”

For instance, to accommodate complications from COVID-19, the deadline to complete the plans was moved from June to Sept. 30 and the planning grants were increased to $20,000 from $15,000. Krambeer said the model’s emphasis on constant learning and adaptability is serving teams well. She said people have stayed committed to developing internal leadership and trust, and devising concrete plans with measurable goals.

The Boston Fed’s Colleen Dawicki, a Working Places manager, added the Vermont teams are turning to each other for help and advice – and that’s not the norm in a competition for the same limited pool of grant money.

“Vermont teams have been super open to looking for ways to learn from each other,” she said.

Teams forced to shift focus as pandemic upends Vermont’s economic landscape

The pandemic hasn’t just changed the mechanics of the planning phase, it’s also forced some teams to shift their entire focus. For instance, some teams initially wanted to find new ways to develop Vermont’s small and aging workforce. But the COVID-19 lockdowns have led to a spike in unemployment and upended that entire dynamic.

“Teams are wrestling with staying true to the long-term trends they were trying to address previously, while also mitigating this immediate shock that’s in their face,” said Peter Nalli of the Boston Fed, who works with the northern New England initiative.

Foster said that despite the complications from COVID-19, the timing of the Working Communities Challenge actually couldn’t be better because the community structures its building will be critical now and after the pandemic.

“We’re going to need more and more of this local leadership development and collaboration to tackle the challenges we’re going to face in the coming years,” she said. “I’m excited and optimistic, and I think it’s never been more important.”

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