Stay in Diagnostic Mode to Find Success
The path to public service was an easy—and logical—one for Alyson Richards to follow.
“I always have felt the need to do something that affects a large amount of people positively, so public service was a way to get at that,” said Richards, director of special projects and intergovernmental affairs for Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and a 2013 CSG Toll Fellow.
In fact, Richards began down the path of public service before she was even out of middle school. She shadowed her state representative, Al Stephens, during a legislative session in Montpelier when she was in eighth grade. Legislators were working on a bill to allow students to be active members of the state Board of Education.
When the bill passed, Stephens turned to Richards and said, “One day, you’ll be in that role.”
He was right.
Then-Gov. Howard Dean appointed Richards to the student position on the board when she was a high school freshman. That meant Richards’ mother, Leslie Richards, would transport her from their small hometown of Newberry, located on the Vermont/New Hampshire border, to wherever the board happened to be meeting once a month.
That experience helped Richards to better target her career path.
She attended Brown University, where she majored in international relations and graduated with honors in 2008. After graduation, she continued down the eastern seaboard and worked in Washington, D.C., at the Democratic National Committee and the first Obama campaign.
Those jobs put her right in the thick of national politics … and not much was getting done.
“There was absolute gridlock and partisanship,” she said.
She continued to follow Vermont politics and watched with interest as Shumlin was elected governor.
“It was this beacon from the north—someone who was talking about working together as a community—we’re so small in Vermont, we really do feel like we’re one big community—to focus on our common ground and get some real change, some real tough things done,” she said.
When the opportunity arose to move back to Vermont to that environment, Richards knew it was where she needed to be.
“This is probably a better way to get a lot done, instead of trying to focus on the national level, to be a model to get something done in a small area like Vermont,” she said. Richards said Vermont policymakers are working together “to make some real changes and move forward some exciting policy and then show the world it can work and serve as that model for change.”
Richards is in the thick of the change that is coming to Vermont. She heads up a number of projects, especially those related to education, and is back working with the state Board of Education, this time as a liaison from the governor’s office.
She’s working on projects related to moving more students—especially first-generation college students and low-income students—past high school and into postsecondary training. Richards said Vermont has one of the top high school graduation rates in the country, but an average continuation rate into postsecondary education.
“The economy has changed, so you really don’t have a chance of a decent wage unless you have some postsecondary education,” she said, adding that creates an urgency to target that gap.
She’s also working on initiatives to ensure the state starts targeting the needs of students in early childhood, as well as individualizing learning for students throughout their educational career.
Various parts of the governor’s package—called Flexible Pathways—had been floated through the legislature, but never passed. Richards, working on her first big special project, put together a coalition of educators, the business community, higher education and legislators.
“We moved the whole thing as a package and it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support,” she said. Vermont is now implementing the plan.
“I was shocked at how things were able to come together and how different stakeholders could really coalesce around this mission we shared,” she said.
Part of that was Richards’ approach to leadership on the issue. “I basically focused on our common ground, which was we all want the best possible outcomes for our students,” she said.