BENNINGTON — Leaders from Bennington and across the state gathered Monday to seek solutions to violence and harm within the community.
The first-ever Bennington Leadership Summit — with over 25 agencies, departments and organizations represented — was held at Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action.
At the forum’s conclusion, it was announced that there would be many more meetings of this nature, bringing together Bennington leadership from law enforcement, education, social work, mental health, medicine and more in what will be known as “Project Alliance.”
“Making things happen,” Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said emphatically as he departed the Bennington College campus. “Not just having a meeting and saying it’s over. Now (the process) is going to continue.”
After a morning filled with some difficult and frank conversations about the problems facing Bennington, the summit split up into six different groups to target what were identified to be the biggest areas of need: housing, criminal justice, treatment, education/prevention, recovery/lived experience, faith communities and social services.
“(We’ll be) able to do cross-system collaboration and planning to put the action steps in place that we identified today,” explained Lorna Mattern, executive director for United Counseling Services.
The hope for Project Alliance is that it will continue and foster more of the dialogue and teamwork displayed on Monday.
Gov. Phil Scott, who offered opening remarks and sat in on the first two hours of the forum, said state leaders learned the importance of interagency collaboration during the pandemic. He also referred to Project VISION, the coalition of over 400 Rutland community partners that was founded in 2013, as an inspiration for today’s meeting. With Project VISION, many of the partners in the community gather regularly in a room to focus on the shared mission of tackling drugs, mental health, violence and other issues affecting that community.
“We do a lot of remote meetings now, as a result of the pandemic. And that’s effective, but it takes away a bit of the human element,” Scott told the Banner about the value of the summit being held in-person. “The conversations we’re having wouldn’t happen on Zoom. It’s been an effective tool, and we’ll continue to use it, but there’s nothing like getting everyone together to really flush out some ideas.”
During his address to the summit, Scott said that community leaders have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to address these complex issues, and that continued progress and transformation is “within our reach.” He cautioned everyone in attendance that new ideas often get introduced, but the greatest difficulty is in seeing it through.
“Every two years, new people are elected. Everyone’s excited about what they bring to the table,” Scott said. “But the hard work is really finishing what you start. So we have to focus on the fundamentals, and this is a great start.”
The governor touched on a theme that echoed throughout much of the morning, which was that “one size rarely fits all.” Scott made it in reference to Vermont’s many communities that don’t all share the same assets and challenges.
“This session, I’ve asked the Legislature to pay much more attention to the individual needs of communities, so we can close the gap between regions and lift up all of our towns and villages, not just the ones that have historically done better,” he said.
The forum was lead by James Baker, formerly a Rutland police chief — who launched Project VISION in that town — and state police commandant and interim commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Baker opened by displaying a “heat map” that shows the areas within Bennington with high concentrations of crime.
“Unfortunately, a lot of communities put that pressure on the police department,” Baker said of the higher-crime areas. “And that’s part of what we’re trying to do here today, is to spread that responsibility across the board for a behavior that happens at a given location.”
Following opening remarks, there was a panel discussion of “challenges on the ground” that included Grande; Lorna Mattern, executive director of UCS; Kyle Hoover, Bennington district director of Department for Children and Families; Megan Herrington, district director for Department of Health; and Todd Salvesvold, Vermont Blueprint for Health manager.
In their discussion, almost every panelist commented on the growing mental health crisis.
“What I’m seeing is a significant increase in problems and acuity that are being presented to our children’s services folks,” said Mattern.
“Bennington PD handles more mental health calls than any other law enforcement agency in Bennington County combined,” Grande noted.
Also discussed at length was the concern over rising drug abuse and addiction, and related problems.
“We’re seeing substance abuse, but also a level of violence or level of threat tied to those cases, that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in my career,” said Hoover, who has been with Department for Children and Families for 18 years.
Following the panel were “presentation of problem” statements made by representatives for each of the six areas of need that the focus groups later branched out into.
Margae Diamond, executive director at the Turning Point Center of Bennington, was particularly moving in her evaluation of the recovery/ lived experience portion of Bennington’s challenges.
“The town of Bennington has a tough exterior masking a more fragile interior, much like the people who suffer from substance use disorder,” Diamond said. “Untreated trauma and mental health conditions, alongside intergenerational poverty, are fueling the situation.”
“We see that many people seeking recovery make attempts only to be met with barriers and contempt,” she later said. “There are evident holes in comprehensive treatment and supportive recovery from our perspective, especially as compared to other counties in the state.”
While the morning session initially tackled emotional and complex issues, many of the same speakers were able to brighten the outlook in a “rapid round table” moderated by Baker. Leaders primed their later discussions by presenting some of the things that have been going right, and projects they are working on.