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Column: Keeping a community and its economy going

For the Valley News
Published: 7/9/2020 10:20:17 PM
Modified: 7/9/2020 10:20:08 PM

I was joking with my daughter that when we look back on how Vital Communities responded to the coronavirus pandemic, we took three perhaps counterintuitive actions: We hired people, we gave money away and we volunteered our time.

As readers may know, Vital Communities is a 26-year-old organization that brings Upper Valley people and organizations together to address issues of community, environment and economy. The pandemic was a loud call to action in the area of the economy, which in the Upper Valley has been disrupted on every level, from job loss to business closings.

How, in response to this pandemic, do we give our local economy the focus it needs while keeping in mind those other two prongs, including such enormous issues as racial equity and the continued climate crisis?

We hired staff on a temporary basis to assist small businesses in navigating the CARES Act, provide business advice and to help with our local business support efforts; and we enlisted a recent college graduate to help out while we replaced our departing communications manager.

We gave, pointing donors to Upper Valley Strong, statewide charitable pools and other charities on the front lines of providing assistance. We lent a crowdfunding structure to the Valley News, helping it raise more than $150,000 so it could continue to be a lifeline to neighbors sheltering in place at their homes. We’ve begun to expand the crowdfunding platform so that local businesses can seek financial support from neighbors eager to see them back in business when possible. We used our website to share initial information on the pandemic.

We volunteer, through Upper Valley Strong, to support the social service needs of those impacted by this disaster, both now and laying the groundwork for what may be a long haul. Our staff joined Upper Valley Strong committees — food, transportation, volunteers, mutual aid, finance and the steering committee — lending a hand when a hand was needed. And, like so many others around the Upper Valley, staff members volunteered on their own in mutual aid efforts throughout the region.

Our support for local businesses included expanding our online listing of local farms and businesses, facilitating weekly calls for chambers of commerce and business leaders to discuss how to foster economic recovery, and offering weekly webinars for businesses struggling with various aspects of coming back — from reopening restaurants and inns to de-escalating workplace conflicts over health measures.

We opened ourselves up to new ways of working and thinking. The death of George Floyd and the awakening it triggered has led us to ask what our role will be in supporting racial equity in the Upper Valley. What’s beginning to look like an ongoing need to distance ourselves is leading us to think creatively about how to carry on life and work in the Upper Valley, including at Vital Communities.

Although in some ways this is a hard time for me to follow through on my plans to depart Vital Communities, the moment is right. A new executive director can come in at a time of transition, carry forward or leave behind the temporary initiatives we’ve set in place in response to the pandemic, and work together with the board, staff and community to step forward into our new world.

It has been a privilege and an honor to serve as the director of Vital Communities these last five-plus years.

I look forward to seeing how the organization continues to help the Upper Valley become a more equitable and resilient community.

Tom Roberts served as executive director of Vital Communities from 2015 until this week, when staff member Beth Roy will step in as interim executive director. Roberts will serve in a contract role on special projects for several months as the organization selects its new executive director.

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