Building a Foundation for Resilience Planning: Lessons Learned at Green Mountain College

Green Mountain College (GMC) sits at the head of Main Street in Poultney, Vermont, a town of 3,400 people nestled on the western edge of Vermont just south of the Champlain Valley. The school supports 400 residential undergraduate students, 266 students pursuing online graduate and degree completion students, and 167 full-time-equivalent employees. This spring semester at GMC, we took stock of our resilience as a campus and community. This community engagement process, culminating in our resilience assessment report, will help the college prioritize where to invest in building social and ecological resilience. See the full resilience assessment report, and the report that GMC submitted to Second Nature’s Reporting Platform.

There’s a lot we did well, and inevitably some things we would advise our past selves about differently. These are some lessons we learned along the way. Perhaps they’ll help you envision how your school could approach resilience assessment in your context.

Know your goals early and weave them into your work from the beginning.

Obviously the big goals are to complete a resilience assessment, then a plan, and finally to make your vision of a resilient community come alive. However, this process doesn’t need to be strictly linear. With some forethought, the assessment and planning process can be both a means to resilience and an end in itself. At GMC, we realized from the outset that strengthening human connections between departments, between social groups, and between the college and town would likely be a major piece of the resilience puzzle – an estimation later upheld by conversation at our workshops.

With this in mind, we designed our resilience assessment process to help build this inter-group social capital. Over two months we held three assessment/planning workshops — all highly facilitated conversations between stakeholders representing as diverse a cross-section of the college community as we could muster. Students, administrators, staff, faculty, and non-college stakeholders with knowledge of regional resilience or GMC’s community impact were all invited to collaboratively build our community’s vision of a resilient future. These connections build social capital now, and pave the way for easier collaboration in the future.

Empathize with stakeholders and understand their abilities and limits.

At GMC we employed a fairly involved, stakeholder-driven assessment process, letting workshops attendees develop the school’s focus and prioritization for building resilience. This bottom-up process ensured that an understanding of current resilience and ideas for the future were grounded in a shared vision. These discussions also helped everyone see how community resilience (or lack thereof) impacted their daily life, and having a seat at the table seemed to encourage willingness to collaborate in making changes. However, this process seemed successful only so long as stakeholders were willing and able to help us make it work.

People are busy. Dwindling attendance at our workshops highlighted the time crunch our peers faced, and perhaps a need to reframe our request of stakeholders. We learned firsthand that with an iterative community planning process, it helps to have not only diverse participation but also consistent participation. This allows you to spend less time bringing the group up to speed and more time building capacity to work together as a group. In hindsight, we would have tried harder to encourage consistent participation among key stakeholders, perhaps even compromising on the length and frequency of meeting times to ensure our stakeholders could commit to consistency.

If you use a resilience assessment “tool” or guide, make sure it fits your specific context.

Choosing the right resilience assessment tool is critical, because it sets the tone for your entire assessment,  plan, and likely the indicators you’ll use to measure progress. At GMC we used the tool developed by Community Resilience Organizations (CROs) for towns and cities. While thorough and provoking of great conversation, it shifted focus significantly away from GMC and towards the town of Poultney. CROs has since developed a new, campus-specific assessment tool. If it had been available sooner, we would have chosen it as our guide instead.

Integrate resilience building with other community planning processes.

As we ramped up resilience planning efforts at GMC, the college was also redrafting its strategic plan. This offered a serendipitous opportunity to explore how resilience fit with the college’s strategic priorities. However, our project was misaligned with the town planning cycle. Had the town been revisiting its comprehensive plan, opportunities may have arisen for collaborating in some way. Community planning is a lot of work for those orchestrating it and those participating. Thus, it seems useful to integrate planning efforts whenever possible.

Ask people for help.

Because of our participation-heavy assessment process, we chose to hire a professional facilitator and consultant in Mindy Blank, Executive Director of CROs. Mindy’s help was instrumental in creating an effective and efficient assessment and planning process. Second Nature was always ready to help with whatever guidance we needed. There’s a lot of internet resources available, but in our experience it was always best to ask knowledgeable people if we were on the right track.

Most of our lessons can be summed as: be creative and thoughtful from the beginning about what you want to achieve and who can help you get there.

Good luck!

Photo credits: Annie Tuthil