Jude Smith Rachele Reflects on National Speakers and Local Aims of Upcoming Howard Center Conference | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Jude Smith Rachele Reflects on National Speakers and Local Aims of Upcoming Howard Center Conference


Jude Smith Rachele - COURTESY
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  • Jude Smith Rachele

Two years into a pandemic that has touched virtually every facet of daily life, we could all use a little more vision — a little more inspiration. That's the goal Howard Center organizers had in mind when developing this year's conference, "Vision, Visionaries and Voices." It convenes online this Thursday, April 7, and marks the fifth annual conference for the agency, which provides mental health, developmental disability and substance use services in Chittenden County.

Dr. Mary T. Bassett, New York's acting commissioner of health, kicks off the day with a presentation on the impact of structural racism on health outcomes, as well as steps health care providers and officials can take to encourage change.

Attendees will also hear from attorney and professor Anita Hill, who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1991, she testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was chair of the commission. She currently advises on class action workplace discrimination cases and teaches at Brandeis University. Hill will examine the personal and societal toll of gender violence and racial inequality, especially with respect to mental health.

Additional speakers include author Byron Katie, who will speak on self-inquiry and mental health; drug policy advocate Ethan Nadelmann, who will explore health care alternatives to the legal system for drug and addiction treatment; and Educated author Tara Westover, who will discuss her experience growing up in poverty without formal schooling.

Jude Smith Rachele will moderate post-talk Q&As or discussions with each speaker. She's cofounder and CEO of cultural transformation agency Abundant Sun and a member of Gov. Phil Scott's coronavirus Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force. Rachele has worked with Howard Center since 2015, when Abundant Sun began consulting on diversity, equity, inclusion and corporate responsibility.

Ahead of the conference, Seven Days spoke with Rachele (pronounced "RaKELLY") from Portugal about the event, the insights its speakers can provide and her hopes for the day.

SEVEN DAYS: This year's conference theme is "Vision, Visionaries and Voices." What does that mean to you, and how does it fit into your work?

JUDE SMITH RACHELE: Well, the vision piece is, we capture this moment in time, where we've been living through incredibly challenging, tumultuous and confusing times. I think we're all in a position now where we need a fresh vision of what the future has in store for us and how we are going to work together to create better outcomes for humanity generally — but certainly for specific populations that are most vulnerable to some of the stresses and pressures that we've been experiencing.

[And visionaries] — well, that's who we need. What's the point of having a vision if we haven't got some visionaries to do it? We need to have those people on the ground, those people who are really going to have fresh ideas, to explore fresh topics. We need good new things and people who are willing to take us there. And I do believe that the [conference] lineup of people that we have are very esteemed and knowledgeable and experienced. They're taking their wisdom from their past and actually giving us the opportunity to understand how we can use this.

SD: And voices?

JSR: Everything is about voice and agency. To me, there are few things more beautiful than the human voice and the expression of who we are, what we have inside and what it is that we have that's special to share. And that voice doesn't necessarily have to be audible. It can come in many ways, shapes and forms — through the written word, through nonverbal [communication]. There's voice and expression in so many things. I think there's a real appreciation in Howard Center for the power of the voice and the need for that voice, as well.

SD: You mentioned that this year's speakers are the kinds of visionaries we need. What are you most looking forward to? How do they fit into addressing the issues Howard Center focuses on?

JSR: It's a very rich array of people coming from different disciplines, with different subject areas. I believe that they can each bring with them something that really touches on different facets of our community and where those vulnerabilities are. Everyone will be able to connect to [the speakers], right? Even if it's not their specific area of challenge. There's a really nice sense of unification, because what binds them together is the value of the human.

I think healing is really important right now, and that's what I'm looking forward to — being in a space where we can find that inspiration and where we can all be inspired to take responsibility for our own lives so that we can actually do better to help the lives of others.

SD: I want to touch on how these issues connect. Why is it important to take an intersectional approach when thinking about mental health, about addiction, especially at this cultural moment after so much disruption?

JSR: Yeah, there's been a lot of disruption. But for me, as a person that's been in this field for so very long, I think many people will know and appreciate that one of the real joys about looking at diversity, equity and inclusion is, if we're going to do it well, then we have to look at how complex it is. I have done a lot of work looking at taking a very nonbinary approach to some of the issues and challenges.

And when I say nonbinary, I don't mean by way of gender identity — I mean the world isn't black and white. It's not yes or no; it's not right or wrong; it's not good or bad. If one wishes to call that having an intersectional approach, then heck, that's what it is, because we've got so many roads that are converging all the time. And we have to understand each of those roads and how they each get us to the point they're at right now. That is really a vital way of approaching our work.

SD: Your company, Abundant Sun, focuses on cultural transformation. What does that mean to you, and what does it look like in practice?

JSR: You can talk in traditional terms about being in a "continuous improvement cycle." What is that? That has no humanity attached to it. It's still transactional. It's still linear; it's A to B. It's not messy.

We do the messy work with people. We create governance structures once we do some good data analytics and see, "OK, what's going on in your culture?" It's creativity and innovation.

And if we want to make things better — we talk about some of our systems being totally busted and broken — then we've got to be prepared to be lost. That's all I can say, because we're lost in a way, so let's just appreciate it and not get scared and try [to] revert back to form, but stick with that discomfort. That's where we go back to vision, right? Stick with that discomfort so that we can vision our way into a better future.

SD: You have strong ties to Vermont. What barriers or challenges do you see to Vermont achieving this kind of transformation?

JSR: There's something incredibly special about Vermont, which is why I chose to arrive there in summer 2015. Because I did, and still do, fundamentally believe we are a model state in many instances. But we also have the ability and capacity to be even more exemplary, particularly coming through the pandemic and some of the challenges we've seen in the last two years.

We can do things when we're small, right? You can have those relationships; you can [have] fewer degrees of separation. But at the same time, it's isolated. That really is a huge drawback, and it, unfortunately, at times is self-perpetuating.

When I moved to Vermont from England, I was really surprised at how puritanical the culture is and how resistant to new things it is at times. Not everybody, so I'm not making sweeping generalizations about it. But I can honestly say that in my early tenure, being in Vermont, I had that moment where I thought, Wait a minute. I've just come from England to what I thought was New England. But actually, I've arrived in old England, because I can still see old country ways.

I'm not putting any value judgment on that at all. I'm just saying that it can have a rigidity about it that doesn't wish to move.

We've got to be really clear: What are the great things that have been here and that are still here that are tradition and need to stay? But, actually, what are the things that need to really, really, really change?

And people need to understand that when we're talking about cultural transformations and making improvements, it's not about blowing up everything that's in the past. I'm hoping that as we have the opportunity to engage in dialogue on the seventh of April, we'll really see the old and the new and how we move forward with that.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "2022 Vision"

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  • Howard Center