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The Crisis Facing Rural Vermont: Real Communities with a Real Future

We are told our region is dying, but we plan to write a different story.

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

“The future of humanity … is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.” Pope Francis Every day in our community we hear about another opiate overdose or farm auction or community school closing or general store shutting its doors. Policy experts tell us rural communities are no longer viable. Like many parts of our nation, our population is aging, inequality is increasing, and childcare is not accessible. These realities put social and economic pressure on families at both ends of the life cycle. As these pressures build, citizens have less time to come together to address them. Northeast Kingdom Organizing (NEKO) brings together those with the experiential knowledge of poverty and adversity with people in our communities who hold more recognized resources (such as economic and political). NEKO is a coalition of civic and faith based organizations committed to improving the quality of life of the people and places of our region. NEKO is engaged in a participatory process to define our project idea. Transportation and children, youth and families have been identified as critical areas requiring action. Teams are engaged in a participatory design process to identify a project that is locally actionable. By the fall they will select an idea which could look like: • A network of inter generational community care centers to bring seniors and young people together to combat isolation and increase access to child care. • A transportation hub that connects people to jobs and heathy food to rural towns that are food desserts. • Repurposing churches that are sitting empty as community hubs for substance misuse prevention and recovery. Whatever the final idea is, the process of participatory research and collaboration will build connections between individuals, groups, and organizations who had previously been working in isolation. By coming together, we will build a future for rural Vermont that uplifts our shared humanity.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our beneficiaries are the individuals and families who are struggling to make a life in these isolated communities with limited job opportunity, dilapidated housing stock, and no access to public transportation. Our beneficiaries are the nearly 1,000 children under six and their parents who live below the poverty level and the 120 children who are in state custody. Our beneficiaries are the seniors in our community who are food insecure. Our beneficiaries are also our neighbors who feel hopeless and powerless to change the pain and injustice they witness everyday. As the opiate epidemic has gripped our community, no one is immune to its effects. We all know a child who was put at risk by parents who were unable to keep themselves safe, let alone their children. We all know a parent who has lost a child to an overdose. Coming together to take collective action through organizing offers a practice that simultaneously honors our grief and celebrates our hope.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Policy makers have tried top down solutions to economic and community development for decades, yet the long term trends of rural flight, aging demographics, and economic decline continue. NEKO believes the people who are most directly impacted are the experts and hold the knowledge needed to create solutions that are relevant and sustainable. Too often, systems that are designed to help people actually perpetuate harm in their implementation. Through participation in NEKO's community organizing strategies, individuals and organizations learn to recognize and challenge the implicit power imbalances that separate us from one another. Through deep listening and celebrating the dignity of each individual's story, NEKO members build relationships across social and economic boundaries that open doors to creative solutions. These relationships establish a strong foundation for collective action and long term systemic change that elevates our shared humanity over our perceived differences.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Northeast Kingdom Organizing is a coalition that harnesses community organizing strategies to re imagine and build a future for our region in which people and the planet thrive. The Center for an Agricultural Economy serves as a fiscal agent an organizational springboard.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • No, but we are a formal initiative through an accelerator, hub, or other entity.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

In 2015, CAE spent a year learning from community members - what is it that challenges us as a people in rural VT? The results were varied - transportation, livable wages, childcare, opiate addiction and generational poverty - and led CAE to realize that they couldn't do the work alone. The CAE, believing that community organizing around issues is a critical strategy to change the future for better, invited community partners to join them in creating NEKO.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

"Peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice." Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. Poverty is the most cunning instigator of violence. A child who falls asleep as their belly rumbles with hunger does not know peace. A grandmother who fears her grandchild overdosed because her phone call went unanswered does not know peace. The father who doesn’t know if this month’s paycheck is going to keep a roof over his children’s head does not know peace. Rural Vermont and poverty have been synonymous for decades. For some, poverty has been a trade off for the region's natural beauty. But, the underside of this idyllic picture of rural life is a simmering stew of toxic stress. The quickest and surest way to cope with the stress of not knowing whether the next milk check will cover the bills or if the woodpile will outlast the blizzards this year has for generations been substances. Substance misuse and economic insecurity have been a recipe for family violence for generations.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

NEKO is building a coalition of civic and faith based organizations. These organizations are coming together to harness the power of community organizing to tackle challenges together than no one organization could tackle alone. To date, our founding coalition includes six churches from three different denominations, a mission based nonprofit and one of the oldest Grange Halls in New England. This coalition is expanding. We also collaborate with statewide partners who share our core values; dignity and connection, participation and inclusion, care for the natural word. Along side these organizations, NEKO invests in outreach to individuals and communities directly impacted by poverty. By creating the space for individuals to share their personal narratives, NEKO amplifies voices that are often not heard or given a seat at the tables where decisions impacting their lives are made.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Vermonters value community. Regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status, we check on our neighbors during the cold snaps of our harsh winters. The daughter of the owner of the heating fuel company sits in class next to the child whose parents can’t afford to heat their trailer. As our world becomes more and more segregated by class and race, we face a growing crisis of empathy. Our small rural communities have a unique opportunity to be a model of how we can choose to be human together.

Geographic Focus

The three northeastern most counties of Vermont in the USA, (Orleans, Essex and Caledonia) .

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)


Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Christina Schwanke

Hello Martha!

United for Hope was kind enough to refer you to us and I wanted to reach out. Please check out our submission Rural Synergy Foundation- Bridging Urban and Rural for Peace and Economic Sustainability . We are looking to make connections in rural communities all over the US to eventually expand our program. We are piloting in California and Nevada and already working on a partnership in Tennessee. The OpenIDEO platform is really amazing because there are so many people that can help you accomplish your mission. Jesse Hunt in Salmon, Idaho has an idea of A Community Empathy Lab- Social Community Building that might be of use to you. He is amazing! We are connected in him in the hopes of moving into Idaho in the next year! Again read our idea and let me know if you would be interested in connecting for collaboration.


Photo of Martha

Hi Christina,
You're idea caught my eye. I am afraid I am not completely clear on how it would work. It looks like a collaboration of servicing companies' needs for remote work force?
There is an odd policy proposal afoot in Vermont that would actually pay people $10,000 to relocate to Vermont and work remotely for a company out of the state. While I know the answer to the viability of rural communities will require a mixed approach, our project is focused on place based solutions that are rooted in the resources of our local community. Given that, I am not sure if collaboration would make sense. But, I would love to learn more about your program.

Photo of Christina Schwanke

Our nonprofit is planning on hiring individuals in rural communities to complete apprenticeships remotely or from satellite offices. We collaborate with community nonprofits to best serve each community's residents. For instance in one of our communities the cost of living, including childcare and housing, is so high that survivors of domestic violence face severe challenges in getting on their feet. This problem makes it so women either return to their abuser or get stuck in low paying jobs and struggle to survive. RSF partnered with a DV Transitional housing program to provide work and training to survivors. We rely heavily on our collaborators to communicate the needs of their communities so we can help individuals and communities create sustainability. Let me know if you have further questions!

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