Taking over a nonprofit that operates across state lines in the middle of a pandemic is not easy.
But Sarah Jackson is figuring it out. In late October, she became executive director of Vital Communities, a nonprofit group based in White River Junction that operates in the Upper Valley region, serving 69 towns in both Vermont and New Hampshire. She says she’s been doing a lot of listening and learning, and preparing the organization for strategic planning work this summer.
Vital Communities works on a broad range of issues — climate change and energy, local food and farms, economic development, housing, leadership development, and transportation.
It also hosts 43 town listservs, where community members can air complaints about local matters or ask their neighbors for help finding a lost dog. Vital Communities hope the lists provide a forum that keeps residents civically engaged.
While Jackson grew up in New Hampshire — in Laconia and Merrimack — she has spent most of her career abroad, living in Egypt, Kenya and Oman.
After travel in high school and college sparked her interest in other countries, Jackson moved to Egypt, where she taught English. She was particularly interested in developing countries, “where they were trying to advance in terms of economic growth and opportunities for their citizens but also hang on to traditions and culture and their uniqueness.”
She went on to work for nongovernmental organizations focusing on agriculture, education and economic development.
But her professional life and personal life didn’t always connect. In Oman, Jackson said, there were limits on how she could participate in civil society.
“The government didn’t want expatriates to play those kind of roles,” she said. “So I just felt there was a disconnect between my professional life and not being involved in the communities around me.”
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Jackson began looking for ways to return to New England, and eventually found a position at the Montpelier-based Institute for Sustainable Communities. She worked on programs in China, India and Bangladesh.
“I was excited to move to Vermont, but my head during the day was in Asia, working with colleagues and programs halfway around the world,” she said. Since the pandemic, that primer on remote work has come in handy, even as her attention is now closer to home.
Jackson started looking for ways to volunteer locally, such as the Randolph Region Re-Energized Program. After attending a 10-month leadership program run by Vital Communities, she decided to apply for the job there. In the leadership program, monthly sessions focused on topics such as health care and transportation.
“I wanted to make the shift to focusing on local issues,” Jackson said.
Now she has headed Vital Communities for two months, as it works to respond to issues such as food insecurity that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Vital Communities is coordinating the relief efforts of Everyone Eats in the region, a program that’s backed by CARES Act funding to provide restaurant-prepared meals to Vermonters facing food insecurity.
Restaurants are required to use at least 10% local ingredients, but Jackson said Upper Valley restaurants have been using closer to 40%, which supports local farms.
But working in two states has also made it clear to Jackson where there are gaps.
“Unfortunately, it’s just been a Vermont-focused program,” she said of Everyone Eats. “We’ve been trying to figure out ways that we can offer it in New Hampshire as well. And we’re hoping to do that in the new year, depending on funding possibilities.”
Jackson said that, with some private funding, Vital Communities plans to launch a small-scale pilot program in Claremont, New Hampshire, using what it’s learned from coordinating in Vermont.
Travel restrictions and quarantine requirements have been affecting businesses on either side of the state line, which are used to having a customer base in both Vermont and New Hampshire.
“I think that’s challenging for a lot of businesses where their customers can’t cross the state lines anymore, or shouldn’t be, according to the regulations,” Jackson said.
She points to a new initiative, Vital Economies, that brings together business leaders to discuss the issues they’re facing, pandemic-related or not. “We bring town leaders together, for example, to talk about what’s the impact on a business that no longer draws people from Vermont.”
A housing shortage in the region has been another top concern.
And Jackson says making the organization more inclusive is high on her list of priorities.
“That includes things like how can we be more inclusive in our recruiting practices as we recruit staff or volunteers or interns. How can we bring more diversity to our board,” Jackson said. “We’re looking at how can we have more voices at the table and look at who’s not being represented as we design a program or implement the program, and trying to get out of our own bubble.”
Vital Communities plans to recruit people for its climate change leader academies that will begin meeting this spring, and in February will begin recruiting for its Leadership Upper Valley program.
The organization also sends out a newsletter, which is available on its website.
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