Will Patten of Back to Basics is very happy to be with a group of people dedicated to the slow track. He was previously the executive director of VT Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) and thinks in terms of a global society more than a global economy. Patten believes that there is a three-legged stool by which real change happens: government, business and the non-profit sector. In his time with VBSR they initiated and collaborated on a number of important programs including the farm-to-plate project, feed-in tariff legislation that set up a system to pay small energy producers a premium for producing electricity and also did yeoman’s work getting progressive health care reform adopted in Vermont that aims to decouple health insurance from employment.
Patten said that there are a few things in Vermont’s favor when it comes to getting these sorts of things accomplished. The first is scale – a human scale that allows people to see each other. The second is a civility in our public dialog that is deeply rooted in our town meeting system of local government. And lastly there’s VT’s quality of life – it is one of the healthiest and safest states and the economy outperforms the national economy. With regard to the ‘Big Government’ debate, Patten thinks that while government has a role to protect and concretize certain goals and status that we have achieved, there are definitely rules and regulations that we would do better without. He believes that the role of the NGO sector is to advocate for change, stir the pot so to speak.
Julie Lineberger, co-owner of LineSync Architecture & Planning, talked more about the roles of the different sectors. She told a story about a doctor in NY State getting fed up with trying to develop a holistic health care system there, looked around at what was happening in other states and saw Vermont’s ability to instigate change. She moved to Vermont and played a major role in making health care reform happen. Lineberger talked about the devastation that happened to her town during hurricane Irene, how they set up a special relief fund that raised $110,000+, and how recovering from the storm brought together people who had not spoken in years. They are now working to raise $5 million to buy a number of blighted downtown buildings, renovate them, lease them out affordably and then eventually sell them.
Bill Schubart has worked with both the for-profit and non-profit sectors and works now as an author and VPR commentator. With regard to the three sectors, Schubart thinks that there is much more room for collaboration across sectors. For example, in the health care industry since the time of Governor Dean, Schubart has watched the atmosphere go from being fiercely competitive to being highly collaborative. Since VT’s economy is so small he believes that there is really no choice other than to collaborate. At the same time Bill thinks that there is a lot of myth that clouds the thinking in this state. One myth is that many Vermonters think that we are the only ones with a real quality of life. Another is that building infrastructure is necessary for high quality higher education. Buildings can be more of an albatross than an asset these days. Bill spoke at length about traditionally for-profit businesses that are now applying for non-profit status with the IRS such as journalism, restaurants and department stores, and how this is deeply disturbing to many conservative politicians. With cross-sector collaboration he believes that anything is possible.
There was a rich conversation amongst the participants about initiatives that bring people together in order to work through severe polarization. Hilary Cooke also brought up the fact the VBSR was instrumental in getting VT to become the 2nd state in the U.S. to adopt a structure for a ‘Benefit Corporation’ which allows corporations’ fiduciary responsibility to be defined other than by maximizing the bottom line for investors.