A review of the New to Vermont Lunch Series: COVID Newcomers, Here to Stay? session at the Southern Vermont Economy Summit
By Keith Marks, Next Stage Arts Project
When I was asked to host the panel on new Vermonters I could imagine the panel being a cheerleading session about all of the great things about Vermont with any honest dialogue. It was my hope that we could explore all of the positive aspects while still drawing out honest opinions. I was overwhelmed by the ease of which panels shared their fears, complaints, and vision for a better Vermont.
Moving from the south, I always tend to expect people to sugarcoat responses. This was definitely not a southern tea time. The panelists were frank about the shortcoming of Vermont, and the audience seemed genuinely interested.
In summing up the general theme is that if we’re going to be a welcoming state to newcomers, there won’t be a monolithic one-size-fits-all approach. We’re going to have to lean into creativity, into nuance, and to make sure we look at all aspects of a new Vermonter’s needs, such as family, living, internet, jobs, and access to the arts.
Among all of the panelists, the common theme was definitely a deep sense of gratitude for what the state does have to offer. While we sought to better understand what we can improve on as new residents take up residency here, it was incredible to hear the deep gratitude for the sense of community, the access to nature, and the pace of life. For established Vermonters, I think it’s important for them to hear what are the motivating factors that encourage someone to uproot from somewhere else to call this state home.
Another common theme we heard in the panel was about community connections. We want to cultivate that sense of community so that new Vermonters adopt that sense of community in action behavior so that it doesn’t get diluted or lost as newcomers move to the area. Every panelist seemed to feel a sense of warm welcomeness that felt genuine.
The most important message I have for our communities is to create balance between historic preservation and mothballing our future. This is an exciting time for new families, new young people, new energies to be moving to this area. We have to welcome those new aspects to our community and be open-minded to how they might positively impact those communities. We need to be mindful that the way that it’s been done can sometimes feel like rigidity to newcomers. As the host of the panel, I felt heard when I brought this notion up in the Q&A section of the program. Young people need to see themselves contributing to a community if they are going to see themselves living in it. The people who built our communities were thinking about the future residents. We need to be mindful of the balance between what came before and who will be living here in the future.
From the panelists, we have an obligation to work toward housing issues, bringing new businesses here that will create living wages, and continue to strengthen our education system. Those aren’t easy tasks, but they seem to be worthwhile ones to focus on.
The last thing I’ll mention is that nearly every panelist spoke about the importance of vibrancy, diversity, and the arts. As the director of Next Stage, I am a champion for the entire ecosystem of arts in Windham County. When we look across other communities in New England, we see local farms, general stores, cute downtowns, etc. The differentiating factor to Windham County is that in a community of 40,000+, we have, per capita, a staggering number of arts organizations bringing a vast array of arts and perspectives. If we expect New Yorkers, Bostonians, Phildelphians to uproot and move to rural southern Vermont, they’re going to look for the arts to enrich their lives. The panelists moved here for a quiet life in the country, but they still want to be enriched.
To watch the entire session visit: www.sovermontzone.com/recordings-and-materials
Keith Marks is the Executive Director of Next Stage Arts Project in Putney, Vermont and facilitated the COVID Newcomers lunch session at the summit. Marks founded Avant, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching community through the power of diverse arts experiences. His efforts earned him the 2019 Arts Innovator Award from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. Earlier this year, Marks completed the National Arts Strategies Executive Program in Arts and Culture certificate from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to Avant, Marks had broad experience in journalism and marketing and communications. He has also been involved in the production side of live events as a booking agent, tour manager, and producer, among other roles, for the past 25 years. He holds a master’s in education from Tel Aviv University in Israel and a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of North Florida.
Be sure to check out Next Stage’s Bandwagon Summer Series, pictured above.