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Exit 4 and the Opportunity Gap

Zac Freeman Tails at Sunset

If you are driving north on Interstate 89 and you get off at Exit 4 and turn left towards downtown Randolph, you’ll see this stunning image. (photo by Zac Freeman) The image of Whale Dance is particularly remarkable at the beginning or end of day, when the shadows are long and the colors roll through the valley and pool at the base of Braintree Mountain.

At the Vermont Community Foundation, and across philanthropy nationally, a lot of effort has gone into understanding the way modern systems inhibit mobility from poverty and intersect in ways that create an opportunity gap for low income youth and families. It is a data-intensive social science discussion that looks at things like relative poverty, access to early childhood care and education, college continuation, economic development, behavioral health and wellness by region, employment, demographic and labor trends…

The effort is predicated in the idea that the heart of community is a sense of shared experience. We are stronger, more resilient communities when we truly understand where our neighbors come from and how fragile that sense of common experience can be. When we experience things differently, good or bad, we don’t share the same commitment to each other and to our community. It is easy to think of it as a systems game. And it is. There are economic, social and civic forces that combine to keep conditions in place that put a sense of shared experience dangerously out of reach.

And yet, when you come over the little roll on Route 66 in Randolph and you see the sculpture of two whales’ tails, curving and backlit by a sunset, it is hard not to gasp. In that reaction, in that moment of surprise and delight, there is a platform for common experience. We share that reaction—a sharp intake of breath—with every traveler down that road and when we do, I think we are stitching together again that sense of common experience that is so fundamental to the heart of community. 

It is a potent reminder of something that our friend Paul Bruhn, founder of the Preservation Trust of Vermont taught us so well. Paul passed away earlier this fall, but his legacy abounds across the state. It includes lessons about the power of place and space to connect across differences, whether it is a town hall in the Northeast Kingdom, a general store in Putney or an iconic sculpture on a hilltop in Randolph.  When we can share space and connection and common emotions, we build stronger communities. As we think about closing the opportunity gap, the goal is about strong communities, where people are connected and engaged and feel a sense of potential for themselves and their neighbors. These are undoubtedly systems conversations—education and career and economic—but it took a wise friend in Paul Bruhn and a stunning non-sequitur of a sculpture in Randolph to remind me that building community is not just about data and social science, it is about art and poetry and place, too. Thank you, Paul.