Champion of sustainable development wins two leadership awards
STARKSBORO — To spend any time at all with Ellen Kahler is to be inspired that a better world is possible.
The 48-year-old Starksboro resident recently won two state awards for leadership toward a sustainable economy: the Vermont Natural Resource Council’s Art Gibb Award for Individual Leadership and the inaugural Con Hogan Award for Creative, Entrepreneurial Community Leadership.
Since arriving in Vermont 26 years ago, Kahler has been a powerhouse for economic justice and social change across the state, first as executive director of Burlington’s Peace and Justice Center and since 2005 as the executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.
“Ellen’s a big picture thinker, but she also likes to get her hands on the problem,” said Kevin Harper, the Bristol developer who helped found the Sustainable Jobs Fund and was its first board chair. “She has a fearlessness around complex systems. She can take the most complicated, complex system and bring it to an understandable level so that you can communicate with real examples what it might look like and why everyone involved in that cycle of sustainable economic development would benefit.”
Sustainable development, Kahler explains, means development that is economically successful, environmentally sound and socially just. Through her work at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Kahler leads one of the state’s most important engines for accelerating the development of Vermont’s green economy.
The Fund, created by the Vermont Legislature in 1995 but now a standalone nonprofit, provides early stage grant funding, technical assistance and loans to entrepreneurs, businesses, farmers, networks and others interested in developing jobs and markets in the green economy.
“Too often the way that we have done economic development in this state has been about ‘Let’s just go out and look for the next IBM; let’s just recruit those businesses here,’” said Kahler. “But more and more what we need to be focusing on is looking at the home grown businesses and figuring out what they need to be successful, so that they can pay better wages and benefits, so that people can pay their bills, they can send their kids to college, they can have a quality of life. So then what are the ways in which we do that?”
For Kahler one of Vermont’s greatest strengths is its long-standing heritage of small businesses tied to local communities and to the land and its resources.
Vermont is an entrepreneurial state, she said. Ninety percent of all Vermont businesses have fewer than 20 employees. And that gives Vermont advantages because those kinds of businesses can be nimble in their response to changes in the economy. Equally important, said Kahler, is that most Vermont business owners are part of the local community. They know their employees as neighbors, not just as a W-2 statement.
Over and over in her work, Kahler has found that Vermont employers want to be fair, to be decent, to do the right thing. So a huge part of Kahler’s work has been devoted to creating livable-wage jobs by helping small, sustainable businesses be more profitable.
Kahler also points to the state’s history of innovation, including the number of patents from Vermont inventors, far out of proportion to the state’s small size. That historic legacy is still true of today’s Vermont economy.
“Relative to our size Vermont has a huge impact nationally,” said Kahler. “We have a disproportionate ability to influence things.”
Kahler points to the ways that Vermont has led the nation on environmental legislation and on issues like gay marriage and climate change and by creating things like Efficiency Vermont, the country’s first efficiency utility. She sees Vermont as an engine of change for the nation at large.
For Kahler many of these strengths come out of Vermont’s small-scale way of doing things. We still know our neighbors. Life — politics, the economy, you name it — happens on a scale that we can understand. No matter where you live or what you do, Vermonters are tied to the land.
“You can’t survive here in the winter unless you like the outdoors,” Kahler joked.
There is less emphasis on consumerism. Even the very absence of flashing neon signs and billboards — banned since 1968 — means that people are, for Kahler, more able to focus on creating an economy that can put family, community, place, home, love, happiness ahead of money and money only as the measure of all things.
“We can shape the kind of economy we want,” said Kahler, a graduate of Bucknell University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
JUST THE FACTS
But Kahler’s approach has always been to build change on a foundation of rock hard facts.
A good example is the “Basic Needs Budget and the Livable Wage” report, now issued every two years by the Vermont Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office. This reports details what it costs per month to live in Vermont and then calculates — down to the penny — the minimum hourly wage necessary to support a basic needs standard of living.
The “Basic Needs” report is the direct offspring of Kahler’s leadership, while still at the Peace and Justice Center, on a livable wage campaign called the Vermont Job Gap Study. Kahler teamed up with then freelance policy analyst Doug Hoffer, now the Vermont state auditor, and together they meticulously documented the same kinds of data now issued routinely by the JFO.
“Ellen got right away the importance of following the data,” said Hoffer. “It’s one thing to go out and sell an idea, but if you don’t have the data you’re not going to get very far. She got that.”
Given Kahler’s pragmatic optimism, it’s small wonder that two Vermont nonprofits within the space of two weeks this fall recognized Kahler with leadership awards.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets Chuck Ross presented Kahler with the Art Gibb Award at the VNRC’s annual meeting on Sept. 24.
The Arthur Gibb award has been given since 2006 to a Vermont resident who embodies qualities similar to those of the late Arthur “Art” Gibb, and who has made a lasting contribution to their community, region or state in advancing smart growth policies.
A Weybridge resident who was first elected to the Vermont Legislature in 1962, Gibb was deeply involved in passing legislation to ban billboards, enact the state’s bottle deposit law, regulate junkyards and modernize statutes governing local and regional planning. He served on the commission that laid the groundwork for Act 250 and served 12 years on the Vermont Environmental Board, including one year as chair.
Kahler received the first-ever $15,000 Con Hogan Award at a reception held at the Vermont College of Fine Arts on Oct. 8.
The Con Hogan Award seeks to encourage mid-career leaders who share Hogan’s vision of a better Vermont, one that places the highest value on the public good, and who demonstrate a track record of making a difference, a focus on results, connection to community, generosity and enthusiasm.
Cornelius Hogan of Plainfield was Vermont’s Secretary Agency of Human Services from 1991 to 1999, served as Corrections commissioner, ran a successful mid-size corporation and has served many regional and national boards and committees.
The award was established by a group of Vermont leaders who wanted to recognize Hogan’s work in public service.
“We are so delighted to have somebody of Ellen’s stature as the first recipient of this award,” said committee member Cheryl Mitchell, who served as Deputy Secretary of Human Services under Hogan. “Ellen has that fire in the belly that Con has. Her accomplishments are one thing: The breadth of involvement that she’s had in Vermont from her years at Peace and Justice, from the work that she’s done on boards, from her work with the Sustainable Jobs Fund with this whole amazing Farm to Plate initiative that she’s really spearheaded and taken nationally.
“But it was more the way that she does her work,” Mitchell continued. “She’s so enthused. She’s such a good listener. She is so good at sharing credit and bringing people together. She really cares deeply about Vermont and the people of Vermont. She has that same kind of ability to connect with and to appreciate everybody that Con has. She supports and talks so easily with people who are struggling, with people who are on top of the world, with everybody in between.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].