Op/Ed

Opinion: How to think about what’s next

We were FaceTiming with Grammy Sal recently and my three-year-olds started asking her about masks and the “co-wohna-vywus.” It brought home yet again how much life will shift as this course of events plays out and how much the lives of succeeding generations will be informed by it and molded by the efficacy of our collective response. 
There is a lot to think about right now. 
I think about those pressed into service in health care and other essential roles, those families who’ve lost loved ones, those who are out of work, and those balancing working from home with kids in the background or underfoot, trying to make sure things aren’t lost in the digital translation. This is, as others have pointed out, a marathon, not a sprint. 
I hope Vermonters take a (covered) breath to appreciate what we’ve all done together — it is inspiring and remarkable to see the containment efforts working and the philanthropic and coordinated public and private strategies taking root in the damp soil of the Covid spring. 
We are not done yet. 
There is a quote from Whitman’s “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry” that resonates in this moment. I think it speaks to common experiences like the ones we are sharing now. 
 
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, 
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd, 
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d, 
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried, 
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.
 
At the Vermont Community Foundation, we have thought a lot about the decline in common experience through which our sense of community has ebbed over the last few decades. Our work was already focusing on circumstances of economic vulnerability and inequality that have now been laid bare by the pandemic. The insight from that work will be relevant to what gets built from here forward. 
More than 80,000 Vermonters have filed for unemployment benefits. Banks in Vermont processed more than 7,000 Payroll Protection Program applications totaling $1 billion in federal aid. The abruptness of these impacts on families and small businesses speaks to the underlying inequity and vulnerability of people and local economies across the state and nation. 
These are moments when our principles and values guide us — being nimble, being curious, focusing on the unique responsibilities and role of a community foundation. 
WHAT COMES NEXT?
When we re-visited our organization’s core values in 2018, we included the word “curiosity.” Over the course of the last couple years, we have been asking ourselves to reflect on “what are we learning?” or “what insight are we generating?” 
In the work of philanthropy, we are generally free to take risks or explore questions that few others are positioned to explore. Our job is to extend philanthropy — not just to offer ideas that are ready at hand, but also to assess critically and offer something new. 
We find ourselves right now in the midst of a defining moment. When faced with a comprehensive common challenge — a life or death challenge — we are reminded that the challenge itself, the circumstances which gave rise to it and its avoidable national escalation, don’t belong to someone else to solve. We share that responsibility. They belong to each of us as neighbors and members of a common civic architecture. 
It is an architecture on which we all rely for fair play to run our businesses, help us move around, teach and raise our kids, protect us, and shield the commons for the interests of coming generations and against the predation of the moment. 
It will be a very important test to balance our immediate needs of communities with an eye on the future. We are an enduring organization — consciously privileged and responsible for taking a view that stretches beyond the immediacy of the moment that few others are positioned to take. 
The pandemic has elevated the unique vulnerabilities of Vermont communities — aging demographics and declining populations, challenging small business environments, expensive housing relative to median income, aging downtowns and infrastructure, declining workforce participation and college continuation driven by family economic background and regional experience, a series of weak systems that drive inequity and erode our sense of common experience.
And yet, it will also upend the rules that have informed Vermont’s thinking. Our labor force participation declined 4%, the most in New England, after the recession — and in the last three months, we have continued to see more dramatic impacts than the rest of northern New England. 
Vermonters are spending about one-fifth of what they were in January, having an outsized impact on local businesses. According to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker at Harvard University, as of May 3, unemployment claims grew faster, small business employment dropped deeper and consumer spending declined more dramatically in Vermont than for our neighbors in New Hampshire and Maine. The number of small businesses open in Vermont was cut in half and total revenue decreased by over 50% compared to just four months prior. Both stood out in New England. The U.S. travel industry including tourism — a critical piece of Vermont’s economy — is expecting over $900 billion in losses stemming from the coronavirus. How long before our core industries recover? Which of them will be disrupted and transformed? 
In the nonprofit sector, there will undoubtedly be organizations that we know, respect and rely on which will not survive. Is this a moment of acceleration of integration and coordination among organizations that play similar roles? As a generation of college and high school students migrates online, what will it mean for districts with declining student populations and what will it mean for faltering postsecondary institutions (public and private)? 
As air quality and population density reveal themselves as a risk factor for pulmonary pandemic illnesses, what will it do to the patterns of movement and residence that have skewed to urban areas for decades? As nearly every business in the country assesses its ability to staff and work in a disaggregated basis, what will it do to real estate and transportation infrastructure? 
How do we rebuild and empower a middle class that is free enough of debt and economically secure enough to be confident consumers in a small business economy and a local food system? From VPR’s “This Land” survey, we know that more than 40% of Vermonters don’t have access to $1,000 if they need it. The discussion of childcare as a public good, led by our colleagues at Let’s Grow Kids, takes on an immediate and elevated urgency. What other orthodoxies will be open to question? What questions will move to conclusion? What will they collectively mean for Vermont? 
As some of these hard, legacy Vermont conversations take on greater clarity, it will be vital to inform them with a set of principles and a framework for the kind of civic, social, and economic resilience we in philanthropy felt ourselves straining towards even before the pandemic hit. The aspiration can’t be to simply get Vermont communities back to where they were. This is the kind of moment that offers a unique chance; a watershed moment and one in which a coalition of voices, acting as honest brokers, always inquisitive, can help our state regain its equilibrium and embrace a renewed sense of common experience.
We look forward to helping advance our state towards a stronger, more resilient future for all Vermonters.
Dan Smith is president and CEO of the Middlebury-based Vermont Community Foundation.

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