Back to Basics

In the world of education policy, the phrase “back to basics” has a particular flavor. Beginning the 70’s and extending through the 80’s, there was a perception that a national decline was the fault of schools. The answer, or at least the political lever, was a movement that emphasized rote academic skills to the detriment of “soft skills” and electives. Suffice to say that this is not what “back to basics” means in the Burlington City & Lake Semester program. 

In BCL10, students have been exploring the fundamental elements that it takes for a community to thrive. These elements might seem basic, but they are essential. They are also something else that we love in BCL: They are complex. As soon as we see them within the context of a diverse community, of dynamic politics and values, and of the injustices baked into our economy, even basic elements take on greater significance, and greater depth. 

In BCL, “Back to Basics” isn’t a call to return to rote skills. Quite the opposite. To us it’s an invitation to deeply engage with grassroots community partners who are working to help our neighbors. Through their eyes, we come to see “basics” in a new light.

In our classroom, we brainstormed what it takes to make a community thrive.

In February, students met with four different professionals from the housing sector. Each community partner had a unique perspective on the causes and the downstream effects of Burlington’s housing crisis. In a matter of hours, students came away with more context, and with better questions. 

Eric Hoffman, from VHFA, used data to help students understand just how hard it is to make ends meet in Burlington.
Sarah Russell, City of Burlington Special Assistant to End Homelessness, talking about the challenge for our most marginalized neighbors.

Housing in Burlington is outrageously expensive, and you need a lot of money to rent. The average apartment rental cost is $2,004, according to Zillow. Sarah Russell said that housing should cost no more than 30 percent of your income. This means in order to comfortably afford housing in Burlington you need to make $70,000 dollars a year. So why can’t Burlington bring down housing costs? According to VPR , Chittenden county only has a 5% vacancy rate, meaning most people can’t find apartments that work for them. Another reason is that zoning constricts where contractors can build apartment buildings, especially for low-income buildings. “We have a more complex, more cumbersome, frankly, regulatory system for building in Vermont than most other places in the country.” I now wonder if the plan we have in place truly works for everyone in our community.          

– Elliot

The housing crisis in Burlington has gotten out of hand. Not only do we not have enough housing for people to live here, but it’s too expensive to live here. Many people struggle to find an affordable house. My dad works with someone who travels from New York, taking a ferry, because it’s too expensive to move here… Sarah Russel, Special Assistant to End Homelessness, claims that we now have a .4% vacancy rate. A healthy vacancy rate is around 5%. This is very concerning. Burlington is a beautiful place to live, with many hiking and biking paths. We should be sharing this with people, but right now I believe we are too focused on creating a city instead of a community. 

– Sasha

In the article, Nowhere to Go, I learned that when COVID hit in March 2020, all apartments and condos were almost all taken, causing the houses to increase in value but to decrease in quality. Ever since then up until now it is very hard for people to buy or rent in Burlington because it is so expensive… A question I have is how can we make rent and housing prices more affordable for people. When I looked into Initiatives to End Homelessness in Burlington, I noticed that the city is investing into more shelters and programs where people can get their life together. And it’s bringing the city together and making it stronger. But a shocking detail I wanted to point out was in 2020-21 the homelessness percentage increased by 133%. The number is slowly decreasing but we have a long way to go. A question that I am still thinking about is whether the city of Burlington can offer some of the homeless people jobs and help them get back on their feet.

– J-B

In recent times in Burlington it seems you hear people say “There are no houses available around Burlington” or “All the housing prices are through the roof.” I did some digging through resources to find out reasons, and learned that this has actually been going on for a couple of years now. We met with housing workers who told us inside information. They talked about how when renting or buying the decision about who they want is the landlord’s. In the Seven Days article, it talks about how such a low percentage of BIPOC Vermonters actually own their house, and I think that racism and prejudice could be a factor.  “Less than half of BIPOC Vermonters own their homes, U.S. Census data show, compared to more than 70 percent of white households.” This is a 50% difference in home ownership between white and BIPOC Vermonters, which is pretty crazy. Something that stuck out to me the most which I was previously not too familiar with was something Belan called redlining. Redlining was something that a long time ago on the map the city would make red lines where people of color could not live, forcing them to all live together. This shows that these trends have been set in stone for years, and it is still affecting BIPOC people today. 

– Nevin

The first community member I talked to was Corrine Yonce. Corrine is from an organization called CVOEO. This organization mainly works on helping people find and rent affordable housing… We talked about the Section 8 housing voucher. This voucher is provided by the state and is to be given to landlords to lower the cost of renting out their place. The main issue that people encounter when they have a voucher is that landlords will reject them on that basis, but it is actually illegal. The place to go to make complaints on this subject or help with anything in general related to renting is the Vermont Renters Hotline. I think all of this knowledge is really useful because I’m 18 so there is a high chance that I’m going to be needing to know about this stuff in even a couple of years, so it’s good to know that there are ways to find affordable housing.

One thing I’m wondering is what are the other states that have a high vacancy rate doing to get it that high? Is it that they have too much housing? Another thing that I’m wondering is if there is something like section 8 in other states. Also are kids protected under federal law or just our state law?

– Innocent

Seeing that a bunch of places in Vermont are working to [address] these huge problems was great to hear. Learning about how hard it is to find and afford a house and apartment has made me somewhat fearful of what that process will look like for me and other people my age. But now, seeing these programs and organizations working to improve these obstacles makes me more hopeful, which opens another question for me. Will the process of finding an apartment or home in Vermont be any easier by the time I search for one? And is this situation the same for most other states? 

– Sofia

BCL10 dug deeper into what it takes for a community to thrive by meeting with four different organizations that are based in the Old North End Community Center: AALV, The Family Room, Parks, Recreation & Waterfront [C.O.R.E.], and Very Merry Theatre. In different ways, each of them supports basic needs, including housing and food. However they also extend our sense of what counts as “basic needs.” Is it a basic need to have a community? To belong? To feel a sense of personal agency and hope? In twelve different conversations, students pulled the curtain back on a vibrant community center, a building whose community impact now feels far more tangible, as well as more meaningful. 

Uma and Jeetan talked with J-B in the AALV offices.
Josh Miller, Executive Director of The Family Room, offered us a tour.
Chung Ho welcomed us into the Family Room preschool. (Note that our tallest BCL10’er is right in there, at pre-school height!)
Don Wright showed students how Very Merry Theatre’s lightboard works.

What does it take for a community to thrive? We explored that question by talking to community members that work at the O.N.E center. With each discussion we participated in, we got similar answers that revolved around the sense of belonging…

Community is the sense of belonging with a group of people living in the same area. But what happens to an individual living in a community that they feel like they don’t belong in? What happens if they have no sense of belonging at all, especially the youth? When that is lacking, it is extremely hard on your mental health, and [one’s] growth as a person is not as fast as someone who has a whole support system or a community…

When Jeetan from AALV said “If I do not feel belonging and connection then I cannot grow,” it really hit me right in the heart. While others around me grow and improve in what they are passionate about and are in general contributing socially to the community, what am I doing? What am I supposed to do if I can’t find ‘my’ people, or a simple place of belonging…Now I am finally, just maybe, discovering what being a part of something is like. Being included, not just floating around the perimeter is so valuable. Not having a community is negative to the mental health of all people, among any age group. And I wonder what I, or everyone can do to make people feel more welcomed. But this is challenging for a very, very long list of reasons. 

– Jayde

During the time we spent with all of these community partners, I learned how important it was to get to see and learn what they do for the community. As someone who has grown up seeing all of these in action, I felt connected and was glad to know they never stopped giving back to the community. 

My parents have used AALV to get settled in America. Without places like AALV, we would probably have been lost with little to no food or clothes on our backs. I’m eternally grateful for everything they have done for us. I know other communities who are immigrants probably feel the same. Places like AALV, Parks and Rec and the Family Room are for the people and by the people. They continuously give back to everyone when no one is even noticing. 

– Habiba

At AALV, Jeetan Khadka  answered the first question about what it takes for a community to thrive by saying, “We all need basic necessities such as food, housing, and education. We also need a sense of belonging, and opportunities to thrive in a community. Being around your community, when first coming over to the United States can also help.” Being around Jeetan and his colleagues and them talking about how AALV aspires to keep helping more new Americans and to continue to support those in need was very inspiring to hear. I think that what AALV is doing is amazing, and I hope they continue to grow even bigger and become even more successful so that they can support even more people, not just new Americans.

– Shayer

The whole time I took notes, there was always a note about how each non-profit organization wanted to make a place for the people in their community, and it felt good to hear about how they were all changing Burlington in their own little ways while also working together to do so. I saw a new perspective and it made me feel more comfortable about the space BCL was in because we all got closer to each organization just by hearing their stories and the insight was helpful because we see the work these people are doing, but we don’t see the people behind the work so it was a good feel to just get a sense of their story.

The notes I took for all three organizations were similar, especially in the barriers they were facing.

Very Merry Theatre: “Time, travel and MONEY:

AALV: “Language barriers/different country barriers; trauma; violent backgrounds mental health/wellbeing and not having enough resources and money.”

Parks and Recreation/Waterfront: Increasing trust/inviting more families/communities to join and participate, as well as MONEY.

This  made me think, “How do we get them the support or help they need so they don’t face these barriers at all?

– Annemiek
Rich experiences are just things-we-did without taking time for deep journaling.
Each journal is different. In BCL, we invite each student to write what only they could write.
Thriving with the help of an old playground favorite.

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