Staff Blog

This is a space where Foundation staff share their thoughts and musings on giving and community:

Waiting for the Solstice

Posted by: Dan Smith on 12/20/2018

The last few days before the winter solstice are tough in Vermont. The odds are good your commute is in the dark, both ways. The temperature has dropped, and we aren’t yet adjusted to it. The professional contagion of too much to do and too little time jumps the bank into our lives outside of work. And yet it’s the holiday season, where thousands of tiny lights shine just enough to beat back some of those early shadows.

On my Route 7 commute this morning, I was looking out at what my headlights revealed—it is like a little bubble in the darkness. I can see what I need to see: yellow lines, white lines, and brake lights. As usual, I toggled between the Trading Post on WDEV and Mitch Wertlieb on VPR, but I couldn’t escape the question asked by one of our Foundation board members recently: what’s out there, beyond our bubble?

The question challenged us and the board, but it was reflective too—the director acknowledged the framework of their own thinking and life in the asking. We all have our own headlights. We all have the things we see that keep us on the road, and it is hard not to let that be the end of the inquiry.

I had the pleasure of going on VPR’s Vermont Edition with Jane Lindholm earlier this week to talk over year-end giving and philanthropy in Vermont a bit. With the holiday season in full swing, many people are thinking about their giving. There is a lot happening nationally and around the world, and ironically, because of the way news flows and the way we learn about things, it is easy to miss what is just beyond your headlights. It is so important not to lose sight of what's going just outside the lines, right here in Vermont. There are incredible opportunities to make a difference right here.  

Vermont faces the same challenges as many other rural communities. Median household income fell in 2017, and Vermont was the only state where the poverty rate rose in 2016. A recent VSAC report tells us that more than 80% of first generation Vermont boys who graduated from high school in 2012 have yet to complete a two or four year degree. A decade after the recession, we are seeing an intractability around economic mobility that has long-term community, social and economic consequences for all of us.

The Community Foundation has committed its philanthropic resources to closing the opportunity gap. That gap is a practical one—the lack of access to skills and knowledge, family supports, and vibrant communities that exists for many of us. It is also a gap in the way people experience our economy, society, and communities in the 21st Century.

As a statewide philanthropy focused on community, it's important for us to go to bat on these kinds of things, call them out, and organize our work around them. The heart of community is common experience. It’s hard to conceive of another generation growing up in doubt over the fundamental faith that if you work hard, you will be able to get ahead, and yet we know that if you were born after 1980, it’s just not the case, particularly if you were born to a low-income family in a rural community. That rigidity is beyond the lived experience of many of us, and yet it is a defining aspect of our communities.

At our annual meeting this year, we welcomed a challenging and provocative speaker, Richard Reeves. Reeves talked about that rigidity and he asked us to question the distance between what is systemic and what is personal. When we consider what constitutes our own experience, how does it play out in the darkness beyond our headlights? Are there things that we—each of us, as individuals—are prepared to give and give up to be a part of a community that better understands itself and is bound closer together by its experience? 

When it comes to understanding how differently people experience the world, someone needs to be willing to take the first step. I’m grateful to work at an organization that puts a premium on curiosity and understanding. I’m grateful to work at an organization that helps make that first step possible. It is a question I hope you wrestle with as you consider the parts of your community just outside the halogen of your headlights, and how you may give your time, talent, and capital in the waning days of this year and year ahead.

Warm wishes for the holidays and the new year.  

To hear more thoughts on giving and the opportunity gap in Vermont, please listen to my interview on Vermont Edition.

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