Smith: Building community by closing the opportunity gap

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Smith: Building community by closing the opportunity gap

Fri, 10/11/2019 - 11:44am -- tim

by Dan Smith The heart of community is a sense of common experience. We build vital connections around those shared experiences. We experience community when we walk down the sidewalk, along a stone wall, on a dirt road, or up to the front doors of a local school. And we believe those experiences are held in common with those who walk alongside us, before us, and after us.

And yet, there is something increasingly fragile about that. We can no longer assume that our neighbors see and feel the same things when they take those steps.

As a community foundation, our role is to help donors find and fund the causes that matter in the places they care about. To do that well, we need to be able to answer questions about the ways in which philanthropy may be most able to make the greatest difference.

Here is the thing: Despite the fact that we share community, we don’t all experience things the same way. If you were born in the 1940s, you had a 90% of earning more than your parents. If you were born in 1981 or after, that chance is 50%.

Across our communities, it is not a given that our kids show up to kindergarten ready to learn. It is not a given that they get their homework done and come to school rested and well-fed. It is not a given that people decide to continue their education or training after high school. And it is not a given that we feel connected to each other and these places, or feel a shared sense of potential for the future when we walk down the street. None of this happens as a matter of course, despite what our own experience or network may reflect to us.

There is a structural gap in opportunity that is present in Vermont and the communities of the Connecticut River Valley. That gap represents something that should make all of us uncomfortable—the idea that the odds of your success in life depend more on family and the geography of your birth than anything else.

In Vermont, we have the highest poverty rate in New England among 18-34 year olds. In New Hampshire, through the research of the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH (with the support of the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation), we know the percentage of the Coos County graduates who reported that it was easy to find a job in the county declined from 67% to 19% between 2009 and 2011. That’s nearly a 50% decline in a sense of opportunity.

In any particular place, the systems that drive the experience of our neighbors are intertwined—and if they persist, the opportunity gap facing low-income youth and families will have longstanding civic, social, and economic consequences.

At the Vermont Community Foundation, we have been challenging ourselves to consider these systems in communities across the state through focused engagement, local and regional partnerships, and a range of grantmaking and mission investing.

Because of the remarkable work of community partners, there are seeds of momentum emerging. Take Springfield, a community long on both heart and challenges. This year, Springfield High School students needed a space to gather, not only for themselves but for the entire community. So, on their own initiative and supported by mentors in the classroom, these student leaders are making a new teen center a reality. In addition, the All 4 One program supports and strengthens before- and after-school as well as summer enrichment programs. The impact here is not just in the creation of the teen center—it is the leadership and experience of a group of young people who made something happen in their community. And at the Edgar May Health and Recreation Center, the Vermont Community Foundation helped bring people together for a youth and family wellness fair.

Last year, the Vermont Community Foundation made an early grant to the Black River Innovation Campus (BRIC), which is focused on sparking the development of a local digital economy ecosystem by leveraging a 10-gigabyte fiber backbone, educating and training folks in digital skills, launching startups, and recruiting companies to the Park Street School Accelerator. Subsequently, BRIC has leveraged additional national philanthropy and public funding to continue its momentum.

Increasingly, the Vermont Community Foundation is deploying mission investments—a vital tool to address the opportunity gap where it’s felt most acutely— to help achieve our philanthropic goals. We’ve partnered with Housing Vermont and the Springfield Housing Authority to reimagine the historic Woolson Block, situated in the heart of downtown Springfield on the banks of the Black River, as a mixed-use community anchor that will include affordable housing and retail space.

In 2018, Let’s Grow Kids—a supporting organization of the Vermont Community Foundation—made grants through its Make Way for Kids program to create 28 additional high-quality child care slots in the region. The Curtis Fund, another supporting organization, assisted 49 students in Windsor County with scholarships totaling $138,000. And, the Vermont Community Foundation—in conjunction with the Vermont Women’s Fund, a component fund at the Community Foundation, and the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation, another supporting organization—co-funded a computational-thinking curriculum in the Springfield School District.

Through the work of the McClure Foundation, the Community College of Vermont (with academic centers in Wilder and Springfield) has become the single largest post-secondary grantee of the Community Foundation. This at a time when less than 2% of higher education giving supports two-year degree-granting institutions, even though roughly 50% of students are enrolled in two-year institutions.

This is only a snapshot of the community building occurring in the Connecticut River Valley. There is much more energy and progress being made. Together, we share the conviction that the more people, organizations, and businesses can come together to confront the opportunity gap, the sooner we’ll rebuild the sense of common experience that connects neighbor to neighbor.

Dan Smith is the president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation