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Reflections on Town Meeting Day 2021

City Hall Montpelier VT

In Vermont, the events that usually mark this time of year reflect our ability to come together. In normal times, we stomp snow from our boots as we head into the school auditorium or the town hall for our annual town meetings. At the Community Foundation, we use this time as a point of reflection to assess our work over the prior year, gathering insight as we sharpen our focus for what lies ahead. This past year was unlike any other for our organization, for the state, and for Vermonters. As we navigate town meeting in an environment that feels unprecedented, it feels particularly important to consider the lessons of the last twelve months. We know the pandemic landed on communities that were fragile. 

In this century we have seen our country and our collective selves more often than not come up short when tackling the big issues. Writ large and writ sadly, the federal pandemic response offered another data point in that lived experience. There is something in how fragile and disconnected our society is at this moment that bears considering as both a cause and consequence of those shortcomings. 

It feels palpable that the relationships, which were once held across communities, across differences, and across points of disagreement, are now held in a more limited way primarily among those with whom we share economic, social, and educational experience. That is true in both our real and digital lives. And yet, in much of Vermont, if you call 911 because your house is on fire or because someone is having a medical emergency, the people who respond will be neighbors and volunteers with whom you have no guarantee or assurance of shared political beliefs. You will nevertheless be glad that they showed up. How we sustain that ethos of shared experience and obligation is an existential question for civil society and the things that flow from it.

Since 2017, the Community Foundation has been focused on the opportunity gap and the systems that drive disparate experiences in 21st century Vermont. According to the seminal Closing the Opportunity Gap report, a project of the Saguaro Seminar led by Robert Putnam and Raj Chetty, by the time kindergarten starts, kids from wealthy families will have spent hundreds more developmental hours and benefitted from thousands more developmental dollars than those from low-income families. Family income in the 21st century is a better proxy for college completion than ability, and while the value of different degrees and credentials varies, we know from the McClure Foundation’s Vermont’s Most Promising Jobs work that nearly all well-paying and growing careers require education beyond high school. It is a precondition for economic stability. Participation in school-based extracurriculars also deviates by socio-economic background and the nature of the school environment further feeds the opportunity gap as communities are segregated by race and class. We have tried to adapt our work over the last four years to address these questions as they play out in Vermont.

And yet, it’s not enough. Hence our ambition and urgency. As we have done this work, more conditions driving these disconnections have been rendered clearly into view again and again: the disparate experience of BIPOC community members in public health and at the hands of employers, police, public and community agencies; the prevalence of disinformation at a scale that rises to a public health crisis; increasing occurrence and severity of behavioral and mental illness, in many cases driven by adverse developmental experiences; technology access and telecommunications infrastructure that leaves out residents of rural communities; unsafe, aging, and declining housing stock, rendered yet more expensive by swings in migration brought on by the pandemic and the changing climate; the divergent economic experience of those with assets in the market and those without invested assets. These factors are undoubtedly the purview of public policy to address at scale. But as we saw with our VT COVID-19 Response Fund recovery initiatives, there is a role for philanthropy to play in highlighting the art of the possible and stretching our collective imagination. 

When the U.S. Capitol was breached, we were driven to a new, negative awareness of what was possible in our own country. The events of January 6th were beyond the experience of most living Americans, save those few who may have come here to escape the same kind of destabilizing events in the countries they left.

I have wrestled with what the events of the last several months mean for Vermont and for the Community Foundation. First, it strikes me that everyone must make a resolute promise to pass to our young people a healthier society and democracy than what we currently see.

To do that, we must be transparent about hard truths and the risks of our current environment. The world is a disordered place, and people are disordered by nature. Throughout history, including our own, order has largely been implemented by force and in arbitrary ways. The U.S. Constitution and the Republic it enshrines, as flawed as they have always been, represent a truly novel and noble attempt to create and sustain order by broad assent, with mechanisms embedded that allow purposeful change and evolution over time. It is a fragile thing, because its existence, stability, and health do not rely on the providence of individual leaders—though our temptation is to believe differently. It relies on our collective willingness to abide by these norms even when they depart from our own orthodoxies. There can be no tolerance for those leaders who cast into doubt or put at risk, deliberately or through willful ignorance, the rules that define the state of play.

Second and perhaps even more important than the first, is that we as a union of communities share the ability to self-correct. If these moments of disruption move us along that journey—be it on racial awakening and reconciliation, a fairer approach to education and economic self-sufficiency, or the crisis of a changing climate—we cannot afford to miss that window.

And third, I believe that if we want to make progress in this moment, responsibility for addressing our own challenges is ours to bear; we must commit to the work in our town and our backyard. And as true as the legacy of historic disorder is, there also remain abundant examples of the generosity and power of giving and our ability to come together at Town Meeting, to remind us of what we share.

And that seems like a good place to start.