Governmental Gumption

Ask not what your government can do for you at The Richard A. Snelling Center for Government in Burlington

by Portland Helmich

Like many growing businesses, The Richard A. Snelling Center for Government believes strongly in the benefits its products bring to the population at large. In this case, however, the population at large is Vermonters and the products are information, knowledge, self-awareness and good governance. Founded in 1992 as a memorial to Gov. Richard Snelling, who died in office in August 1991, The Snelling Center for Government is a non-profit, non-partisan public policy institute. Its mission is to promote better understanding of government, broader citizen participation in government, and improved administration at the state and local levels.

Jan Eastman leads The Richard A. Snelling Center for Government, a non-partisan public policy institute in Burlington named for the late governor. "The memorial committee wanted something that would touch people more than just a building or a park," she says of its 1992 inception.

"The memorial committee wanted something that would touch people more than just a building or a park," says Jan Eastman, executive director and the guiding force behind the promotion of The Snelling Center's ambitious goals. Like Snelling, Eastman is passionate about democracy and Vermont, one of a few states with a citizen Legislature. "Government is us -- it's not somebody else," she says, "and you don't get to complain unless you're trying to do something about it." Part of what The Snelling Center is trying to do, explains Eastman, is support the development of leaders to do more for Vermont.

Along those lines, The Snelling Center created The Vermont Leadership Institute, which is designed to provide people in positions of leadership a forum in which to network with other like-minded individuals in the hopes of improving their abilities to work together to bring about positive change. "Because of Vermont's size, we've got people in positions of leadership who are lonely and have no support," says Eastman.

Each year since 1995, 22 to 26 applicants from the public, private, and non-profit sectors have been chosen to participate in a series of one- or two-day seminars, which take place in different regions of the state between September and June. Tuition is $2,000, and completion of the program can provide three to six graduate credits in public administration at the University of Vermont. The seminars ask participants to assess their values as well as their leadership and communication styles; they also examine leadership case studies and practice mediation and negotiation skills. "We're not teaching people to run for office," injects Eastman. "What we're trying to do is create places where people can dialogue as opposed to debate. This is small 'p' politics -- we're really teaching people to live together."

Participants also explore issues facing Vermont, such as health care, education, and criminal justice by visiting the facilities that are home to these concerns. Lisa Lorimer, president and co-owner of Vermont Bread Co. in Brattleboro, was in the first graduating class of The Vermont Leadership Institute (1996). She says the on-site visits had an especially powerful impact on her. "You can't run a business in Vermont and think you're not connected to all the issues facing the state. As a Vermonter, I pay a lot of taxes into the educational system, so it was fascinating to be involved in a real classroom for a day."

Steve Gold, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Training in Montpelier, is also a 1996 alumnus of the program, and he agrees with Lorimer. "It's one thing to sit around a table and hatch policy with your colleagues; it's another to consider it in terms of those who are being affected by it," he explains. Gold says his involvement in The Vermont Leadership Institute has made him more committed to making sure the people who are impacted by public policy are involved in the decision-making process. "The program really exceeded my hopes for it," he adds.

Another program offered by The Snelling Center is The Vermont School Leadership Project, which is focused on helping educational leaders like principals, superintendents, and teachers initiate and sustain change in Vermont's public schools while improving the quality of education. "If our educational system fails," says Eastman, "a lot of women will be on welfare and a lot of men will be in prison."

The Snelling Center does not employ faculty to teach its leadership seminars, but uses outside professionals from places such as IBM and Harvard. The staff is intentionally small: five full-time employees and two graduate interns. "In many places, centers for government gear themselves to a few issues because that's the expertise of their staff, but we don't want our response to issues to be directed by what we're most comfortable with," Eastman explains.

Connecting higher education with the public sector is another aim of The Snelling Center, as Richard Snelling had long promoted youth involvement in government through educational and community-focused programs. With the Vermont Department of Personnel, the center has created an online database of state government internship programs for college students. "We want to encourage young people to serve in the public sector," says Eastman. Two former UVM interns -- Sara Munro and Jerry Acosta -- are now full-time employees.

The final purpose of The Snelling Center is to encourage conversation around public policy issues. "We've started more slowly in this area," offers Eastman. "We're not endowed, so haven't wanted to take on things we can't fund." With this in mind, The Snelling Center recently published "Vermont State Government Since 1965" in conjunction with the University of Vermont's Center for Research on Vermont. The supplemental volume to Andrew and Edith Nuquist's "Vermont State Government and Administration" picks up where that substantial treatise left off. "It's a great resource for those brand new to Vermont or for new legislators serving on the House or Judiciary committees," says Eastman, who hopes sales of the book will cover publishing costs.

The center solved its space crunch at UVM when it bought 130 S. Willard St. in Burlington. "This building is an acknowledgment that we've arrived," says Jan Eastman. Pictured: Sara Munro and Christopher Warner.

The Vermont Survey Research Project, which aims to shine a light on the issues of greatest interest to Vermonters, falls into the category of public policy, as well. Survey results are released to the press and published in The Snelling Center's newsletter. "We hope the surveys will remind people what Vermonters care about most," Eastman says. The Snelling Center is doing qualitative research around the role of citizens in government in the 21st century. "The issue here," she goes on to say, "is do we really value citizen participation in government? And if we do, are there structures that need to be changed so that people can do more of it?"

Eastman's enthusiasm for her work is unmistakable and is a product, she says, of how deeply she cares about her home state. "I've had such a wonderful life. I had a wonderful childhood growing up in the Northeast Kingdom with wonderful parents," she explains, "and this job is my way of giving back." The Peacham resident graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in history in 1975. In 1978, she completed Northeastern University's School of Law in Boston and then returned to Vermont, where she began practicing general law in St. Johnsbury at Downs, Rachlin & Martin. It was there she met her future husband, John Marshall; they have been married since 1979. "He was the only other lawyer there who wasn't married," she chuckles.

From 1981 to 1983, when her daughter, Samantha, was born, Eastman served as executive officer of Vermont's Environmental Board, where she administered Vermont's land use law, known as Act 250. Then came a few years of part-time work in private practice and as legal counsel to the Department of Housing and Community Affairs. In 1990, Richard Snelling appointed her secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources. They had become acquainted while she was serving on the Environmental Board. "He decided to give me a shot, and I was shocked. We didn't always agree," she admits, "but we had a great dialogue, and I liked working with him." In 1993, less than two years after the governor's death, The Snelling Center's board of directors hired Eastman to replace Molly Beattie as executive director. Beattie, now deceased, had gone to Washington to become the first female director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eastman seems perfectly suited to her work. A self-proclaimed "generalist" whose talents are seeing the big picture, the 47-year-old loves partnering with various professionals to dream up and design the center's leadership programs. "I look at things from a systems approach rather than looking at one issue in a system. At meetings, I'm there for the concept, but I'm happy to leave the details next door," she explains, referring to program director Sara Munro. Nevertheless, Eastman attends almost all of The Snelling Center's leadership seminars because, she says, she loves to watch people learn about themselves and wants to make sure The Snelling Center is meeting people's needs. "This job is what I do by choice," she insists with a smile. "If I could be doing anything, I'd be doing this."

Few would argue with her. Jake Ide, the center's development coordinator, graduated from college just two years ago, but is awed by Eastman's energy. "She's incredibly active," he says. "She's busy for days and weeks at a time without taking a break. I've never seen anyone else who's able to do that."

Business manager Colleen Oettinger has been with The Snelling Center for more than six years, and she appreciates Eastman's support. "She's a real nurturer -- a real mentor," says Oettinger, "who encourages us to grow in our own positions and helps us get there."

The Snelling Center for Government receives most of its funding through federal and private foundation grants; only a small amount comes from business and individual contributions. Ide is one person who would like to see that change. "I'd like to see a greater percentage of our support come from Vermont," he states, "because that runs along the lines of Vermonters and their self-reliance."

Eastman agrees, but concedes business development is not her strength. "It's not as easy to sell a leadership program as it is to sell computers or a building," she says.

Eastman and her colleagues know The Snelling Center's support will grow as more people become familiar it, which should happen more easily now they have found a permanent home on South Willard Street in Burlington. In 1993, The Snelling Center located itself at the University of Vermont because the center's board of directors believed it was important that a center for government be affiliated with a center for higher education. As the small staff grew, however, space became problematic. "We requested additional space from UVM," says Eastman, "but they just didn't have it." From June 1996 to July 1999, Eastman relinquished her office space to staff and worked out of her home -- or her car. Finally, in December, The Snelling Center for Government bought 130 S. Willard St. for $415,000 with the help of the Vermont Community Loan Fund and KeyBank. "I think this building is an acknowledgment that we've arrived," says Eastman. "It's a statement that our board believes in what we've done."

The center strategically uses outside professionals instead of in-house staff to teach its seminars. "We don't want our response to issues to be directed by what we're most comfortable with," explains Jan Eastman, pictured with Jerry Acosta (left) and Jake Ide.

Among its other socially conscious accomplishments, The Snelling Center for Government has coordinated The Northeast Kingdom Enterprise Collaborative with a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This collaborative of decision-makers from business, regional development, education, social services, and other Northeast Kingdom communities has been meeting to discuss the future economic development of the region. Since Sen. Patrick Leahy's office made them aware last fall that the three counties that make up the Kingdom -- Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans -- might be eligible for a Rural Economic Action Plan (REAP), they have been working to obtain one. REAPs are USDA programs designed to give a helping hand to economically disadvantaged rural areas. News about whether they have obtained a REAP is expected before the end of July. If all goes well, the Northeast Kingdom will become the fifth REAP in the country, entitling it to federal grants supporting the interests of low-income individuals.

Work such as this is at the core of The Snelling Center's belief in the impact citizen participation in government can have on the lives of Vermonters. "Snelling said," quotes Eastman, "Vermont has always preferred to ask many of its citizens each to contribute a little to the process, rather than to ask a few to contribute a lot." Realizing that any government functions only as well as the people who run it, The Snelling Center is carrying the flag for those who believe that democracy and participation are inseparable -- and they're waving it proudly.

Portland Helmich hosts "Rural Free Delivery," a Vermont Public Television series.