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THE SOAPBOX: The Vermont Cure

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by Margaret Blanchard

Given national disfunction and gridlock, let’s solve our problems locally with grassroots resources.  One countrywide issue is the troubling complex of youth underemployment, weakened unions, rising costs of higher education, student debt burdens, and shortages of affordable housing—during an era of excessive income inequality.  Overloading the next generation puts our collective future in jeopardy.

In Vermont this conundrum may contribute to “youth flight” (not unique to Vermont): young people leaving home for exploration, self-discovery, more diverse communities, and broader opportunities.  Often these explorers return home to share their new skills and insights.  Meanwhile, many young people move to Vermont because of the natural, healthy environment; community; progressive education (pioneered by Vermonter John Dewey); and a sense of belonging.  Whether from other countries or other states, such diversity can benefit the whole state—but only if living here is sustainable.

To address needs of flatlanders, immigrants, and woodchucks, let’s envision plans to provide employment and education for both native and new Vermonters, drawing upon the state’s history of cooperatives, and the expertise and experience of older Vermonters—to build, first, affordable housing.

Steps:

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1. Pull together a pool of experienced housing specialists: architects, engineers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, energy experts, realtors, accountants, lawyers, publicists willing to mentor/provide apprenticeships or internships for others in designing, building, and managing small affordable housing projects: either renovations to existing buildings or new buildings (tiny house communities: housing collectives) using environmentally sustainable designs (consult net-zero proposals). Include immigrants whose expertise with communal housing offers more diverse designs.

2. Identify potential learners/workers who need jobs and might like to combine skills training with educational opportunities.  Develop small teams to include diverse abilities, genders, ages and origins, partnering natives and newcomers with mentors as part of a potential Climate Change Corps. Their energy could be used to convert existing homes, barns, buildings into sustainable housing, while young workers develop independent skills—with options to enroll for degrees in local schools.

3. Design affordable and energy-efficient communal housing which meets the needs of both seedlings and rooted, as well as reduces our carbon footprints—drawing upon research and designs already developed by builders like Yestermorrow, Youthbuild, and Habitat for Humanity (by which potential future home owners can help design and build their own residences). Whether or not they become future inhabitants of these buildings, workers should be paid a living wage for their participation, while also being given opportunities to experience personal and educational growth.

4. Offer high school and college credits for these workers, so they can eventually earn degrees through local schools like CCV, Sterling, Vermont Tech, or Goddard—guided by academic experts who can help individuals translate experiential learning into academic expertise.

5. Offer additional educational training/learning opportunities: in such areas as leadership, teamwork, and collaboration; cross-cultural dialogue; ecological design and planning; economic models; energy systems; health; education; legal dimensions; legislative issues; anthropology; narrative theory and practice; communication and arts. In addition to workshops, films, lectures, this system could use one-to-one mentors from a list of community volunteers, drawing upon learner-centered designs already fruitful in Vermont educational models. Persons with administrative skills could help match learners with mentors—perhaps using existing systems like ORE or FPF.

6. Seek funding sources for pilot projects:  Individual home owners could pay for renovations to their houses, gaining equity from the upgrades. Or we could establish a public bank.  And solicit private funding from generous, visionary sources. Another financing option could be a system of individual sponsors offering specific “sustainerships.”  John Vogel suggests applying for a housing and jobs grant from the State, made possible by Vermont’s high credit rating.  Many mentors, for housing as well as education, could be volunteer retirees, thus turning the aging population “problem” into a plus. (potential partners include: Downstreet Housing, Homeshare, Montpelier’s Downsizers, Vermont Works for Women.)

7. Start with sample projects.  Publicity from pilot projects could attract additional fields and teams featuring Vermont expertise in: 1. Farming /foods/culinary; 2. Creative arts; 3. Healing modalities; 4. Nature /sports /hospitality.

Rationale:

Diversity is key to environmental health and democracy, particularly in Vermont where some minorities are scarce, invisible, or discriminated against.  Working together helps teach tolerance and empathy within the larger community.  Developing friendships and mentorships can deepen connections, and convictions, which radiate through families and villages.  Whether woodchucks, flatlanders, or new Americans, we have much to offer each other.

Native Vermonters, in fact, share much in common with immigrants—extended families, traditional values, spiritual commitment, assumption of communal support, value of cross-generational contact, resilience, and the strength to survive. Local opportunities for our youth help keep families together. Diverse teams of designers and craftspeople expand options for vision, design, technique, process, and systems.

The development in our youth of survival/sustainability skills benefits the whole community. Participants can feel pride rather than dependency, indignity, immobile, inadequate, or frustrated. Educational components open up opportunities for advancement the young would otherwise seek elsewhere, or never find. 

Let’s not assume a corporate, classist view of what we want or need. Let’s collaborate together for creative and fulfilling solutions.