Come visit Rutland and you will find out why we locals love this community. There are natural amenities and a historic downtown with new COVID-friendly parklets. Despite this, Rutland lost 7% of the population during the past decade and is suffering from a declining population and ongoing workforce development issues. This is a similar trend occurring elsewhere, particularly in rural America. To remedy this, communities, large and small, are implementing innovative and collaborative solutions to save their beloved towns, specifically by attracting diverse populations. Rutland would benefit from the lessons below from similarly sized cities. This includes embracing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and incorporating it into our policies and programs to ensure economic prosperity and a diverse, welcoming and thriving population.
Take Lexington, Nebraska, as an example of how diversity can create community benefits and economic growth. In the early-1990s, Lexington was experiencing a declining population and ongoing workforce shortage for industry jobs. Leadership in this town of 10,000 was faced with a choice: Remain the same and face economic collapse or innovate. Leaders chose the latter.
In 1990, less than 100 foreign-born people lived in Lexington. Now 30 years later, over half of the Lexington population is foreign-born. The high school has a student body of 880 who speak 30 languages and hail from 40 countries. The infusion of immigrant-owned businesses created a new vibrancy to a once-dying downtown. While Lexington encountered their fair share of challenges as they figured it out, such as discrimination, language barriers and housing shortages, their experiences offer a road map for other rural communities.
Take Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, also known as the refugee capital of America. In 2016, a report released by the New American Economy showed immigrants and refugees in Lancaster County have powered important local sectors, such as health care and manufacturing, while also contributing to the growth of new businesses, a strong tax base and thriving local communities.
What’s happening in Lexington and Lancaster is backed by data from the Urban Institute, the preeminent think tank in Washington, D.C., dealing with urban trends. Their in-depth data analysis shows communities that rate highest on the inclusion metrics are also faring best economically, with economic benefits being shared by all citizens. Communities such as Lexington and Lancaster have intentionally brought EDI into their economic development processes.
Now, take Rutland. Rutland can incorporate Lexington and Lancaster’s lessons in five ways. First, existing leaders, specifically white leaders, must better listen to diverse community leaders and community members representing refugees, immigrants, Black, Indigenous and other people of color. In Rutland, all leadership — including elected officials and leadership from schools, cities and the state — needs to listen and act when people of color say they feel unsafe and are actively experiencing hate, racism and worse. As a community, we need to listen to students and staff when they say the Rutland High School mascot makes them feel unwelcome and perpetuates trauma. We all need to pay attention when Black leaders are leaving Rutland County because they are experiencing harassment and threats of violence.
Second, community members, specifically white community members, need to address our community’s issues with racial bias and discrimination. To start, we need to encourage our leadership to prioritize EDI in decision-making. Further, we should require our leadership to step down if they are unwilling to address their own, or the community’s, biases before making decisions.
Third, Rutland can increase business opportunities to specifically serve diverse populations. Diverse communities have different needs, which translates into new niche markets that will grow Rutland’s economy. To serve these new markets in Rutland, the existing Business Incentive and Assistance Program (BIAP) could focus on small-business owners and entrepreneurs who are immigrants, refugees, Black, Indigenous other people of color, and other historically marginalized groups. Additionally, the workforce development education services that currently exist in the state could better emphasize EDI. Cities across the country are innovating traditional economic development, and Rutland can, too.
Fourth, community leadership can work closely with local organizations working to make Vermont a more welcoming state. For instance, IAMAVERMONTER.org is a great resource for people of color that highlights career opportunities and cultural benefits available in Vermont. Another example is the Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity (VTFD). VTFD is a relationship-oriented training/consulting service with the social mission of making Vermont a desirable destination for all, particularly outdoor enthusiasts, tourists, conventioneers, college students, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists of color.
While this transition may not be easy, these examples can help Rutland be successful in becoming a more diverse, welcoming and economically thriving community. If we want Rutland to continue to be a great place to live, work and play, we must become a place where people from all walks of life are welcome.
Allie Breyer is a resident of Rutland County.