Lessons from 2018

When considering all that High Meadows learned from our partners in 2018, and identifying the lessons that will guide our work in the year ahead, a particular image comes to mind. A report from the Green River Watershed Alliance (GRWA) in Windham County, one of the grantees in our initiative to build resilience in Vermont’s watersheds, included this set of three photos of an electronic traffic sign on the side of a road:

storm impact sign.png

The sign advertised a community storytelling forum hosted in Guilford to reflect on the town’s response to Tropical Storm Irene and learn more about a proposed flood ordinance. Over seventy people came, many beyond the usual suspects who come out for events like this one. The successful turnout was due in part by this sign, put out by Guilford Road Foreman Dan Zumbruski.

What’s revelatory about a road sign? For one, we were struck by the immediacy of the language—“STORM IMPACT”—compared with the terminology we’re often inclined to use—“Climate Resilience.” We were also touched by this demonstration of support from Dan, which reinforced our conviction in the necessity of diverse community partners in not just watershed work, but any effort that’s meant to promote both vibrant communities and a healthy environment. The GRWA’s report emphasized this: “People love their road crews. People love First Responders. People love hearing their stories, which are always about honest, hardworking people who are intimate with their landscape. They know everything, and these folks are powerful watershed allies, and the partnership can be very strong. Once you get the Road Foremen on your side, they can make anything happen for you.”

Maybe we’ve become more sensitive to the implicit and explicit messages of a road sign because, in 2018, we gave more attention to communicating with our partners. Last year, we started to blog more regularly (subscribe at the bottom of this page or email Gaye to get our blog posts by email) and joined Twitter (@HighMeadowsFund). It’s difficult and time-consuming to articulate what we observe and what think we understand. We do it so our grant partners have a sense of our evolving thinking and in hopes that those working in communities, farms and forests will respond or initiate conversations if what we say is misguided or deserving of more nuanced consideration. We feel it’s valuable to put our thoughts into writing; the process itself helps us better understand the way we think and what we believe.

One core belief that shapes our grantmaking is the value of providing opportunities for grantees to learn together and share experiences with their peers. This has been particularly striking in our work with local watershed teams. Not just in Guilford, but also around Lake Memphremagog, along the Ottauquechee, and in the headwaters of the Winooski River, these teams are building ties among communities along waterways to prepare more effectively for future extreme storm events. Over the eighteen months of the grant, we have gathered the teams in conference calls and occasional meetings. They received coaching about storytelling and landowner outreach, and, just as important, they learned from each other by problem-solving together. These gatherings allowed us to give more emphasis to shared learning as a component of working with High Meadows as a funder.

Looking ahead, we are setting out on two new initiatives: one to scale up and strengthen key food hubs, the other to improve the health, integrity, and connectivity of Vermont forests. In each of these we are exploring how High Meadows can provide support beyond the grant check to nurture collaborative efforts that give communities of grantees the time and space to talk with each other about what works and what doesn’t.

The event advertised by that Guilford road sign was an inspiring moment when many different members from that community came together to talk openly and listen. This past year, High Meadows has experienced again and again the challenge and imperative to bridge divides of class, race and income. These divides are present across all our areas of focus: developing farm, food and forest enterprises, strengthening watershed resilience, and cleaning up the energy Vermonters use to heat their buildings and travel. These divides can cause us to act based on assumptions and simplified narratives about people—often our neighbors—whose lives and lived experiences differ from our own.

When we raise this issue, our partners typically think we are asking how their work impacts a category of Vermonter, for example those with low incomes. That’s an important question, but it’s only part of what we’re asking.

More broadly, we want to understand how the Vermonters who are most impacted by the work High Meadows supports are actually engaged in that work. This isn’t just about communications. It’s also a question about who is at the table and whether they have a voice. For example, if we hope to improve the environmental impact of farming, what roles are we offering farmers in that work?  If we want to improve the preparedness of mobile home parks to more frequent extreme storms, what power are we giving to park residents to drive that change? 

Sometimes this means paying attention to language, like how to make “climate resilience” meaningful. Or, as we’ve previously written, understanding when “the working landscape” means one thing to people who make their living and livelihood farming or logging and something different to those who hike, drive or bike through the landscape.[1]

But it’s not just about checking whether our words accurately convey our meaning. It’s about whether we have taken the time to reach out in an authentic way beyond our usual audience, to listen without preconceived notions of someone’s intent, to respect the good work that others have already done, and then work together towards shared goals.

Beyond that active listening and collaboration, have we examined the inequities in power and privilege embedded in our communities and in our working relationships? How should these inequities inform our approach to building vibrant communities and healthy natural ecosystems? We are asking ourselves those questions at High Meadows and look forward to learning from our partners who are asking them too.

[1] The research of Dr. Cheryl Morse of UVM has been especially useful in getting us to think hard about what the “working landscape” means to us and others in Vermont.