Neutral convener. That is the term beloved and longtime executive director of Vital Communities, Len Cadwallader, used when describing the role this transformative organization has filled for the past 25 years. That’s right, Vital Communities is celebrating its 25th anniversary and is clearly just ramping up!
Time and time again, it seems that an innocent spark goes airborne and lands on just the right combustible and – Wowie! – it spreads and spreads organically because it is just that powerful! Vital Communities’ origin story tells a similar tale.
While she “can’t say enough about all of the amazing people” who carried and continue to carry the torch to this day, it was Norwich resident, Betty Porter, who took the first spark of an idea presented in the Valley News and fanned the flame that was to become Vital Communities.
“If an Upper Valley group were to try this sort of exercise, it could help define those elements that Upper Valley residents collectively value, and provide a useful gauge for monitoring changes in the quality of life.” [Editorial from the first-ever Sunday edition of the Valley News; Sept. 8, 1993]
The Editorial was referring to a group in Seattle, WA called Sustainable Seattle Civic Panel “…that formed to work for the long-term cultural, economic and environmental health of Seattle…to measure those factors most crucial to the city’s livability.”
At the time, Betty was a board member of the League of Women Voters and posed the question to fellow members: “Why don’t we become that Upper Valley group and create a unifying model to bring all of the good work being done separately, together?” Many brown bag lunch meetings later, she and fellow Norwich resident and League member, Anne Silberfarb, realized that if this concept were to evolve into something truly vital, they would need to expand their scope and enlist the support of many more community leaders.
“Several of us were aware of the chronic issues plaguing the Upper Valley – housing, transportation, local agriculture – and we were serving on boards doing great work,” said Betty. “The problem was that the work being done happened in separate silos, so to speak. There needed to be a unifying body.”
“Thankfully, Anne and I served on the boards of many organizations headed up by true visionaries,” said Betty. “People like Delia Clark (a place-based educator and community facilitator), Lilla McLane-Bradley (Upper Valley Land Trust, Upper Valley Community Foundation and the Dresden School District – the first interstate district in the country), Walter Paine (who was instrumental in forming the United Way of the Upper Valley, and the Montshire Museum of Science). These were true community leaders who were thinking regionally and big picture.”
“So, we assembled what Anne coined as the Dream Team, and ‘Upper Valley 2001 and Beyond’ was created,” reflected Betty. A serendipitous situation enabled them to secure the funding and they were off to the races!
The newly-formed organization’s first order of business was to educate local community members from throughout the Upper Valley about the organization’s role as a non-threatening driver of change at the hyper-local level. Community leader and group facilitator, Delia Clark, was instrumental in leading workshops for those communities receptive to hosting day-and-a-half-long events to dig deep into what were the issues... and possible solutions... that showed up uniquely for that community.
“Delia’s charisma and ability to articulate, in as close to an elevator pitch as possible, exactly what we were trying to accomplish really lent credibility to our work. People could understand that we weren’t coming into their town to tell them what to do. We were there as ‘neutral conveners,’ as Len [Cadwallader] used to say, to help them shape their own destinies,” explained Betty.
Len Cadwallader became the Executive Director of what evolved into Vital Communities in 2000 and served as its leader for eleven years. “Len was the perfect person for the job,” said Betty, “and remains one of the most influential people in my life.” Len’s ability to listen, facilitate and then lead without ego allowed the original Vital Communities’ mission to carry on as a unifying grassroots, rather than top-down, organization.
Today, Executive Director, Tom Roberts, has just the right stuff, and the right people in place, to help lead Vital Communities and the Upper Valley region it serves – into the next quarter century.
In the Spring 2015 newsletter in which Tom was introduced to Vital Communities members, he wrote: “I have been spending my time getting to know the excellent staff and Board as well as focusing more deeply on Vital Communities’ projects and role in the community. I am enjoying the opportunity to listen and learn, and I look forward to expanding the circle of conversation and focus as we move into the spring.”
And move into spring, he and Vital Communities certainly have. Vital Communities continues to grow and bloom with new programs and initiatives being introduced as local and regional needs arise.
“I would say the most important factor in the success of Vital Communities is the amazing people who have served and continue to serve the organization. I remember being so energized and being on such a high after our meetings… that doesn’t happen very often at board meetings,” Betty said with a smile.
“Everyone was always excited to contribute with no agenda or personal outcome in the mix. Being a part of Vital Communities has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life.”