On Whose Shoulders Do We Stand?
UVM Education and Hurricane Irene Changed Him
- By Cheryl Dorschner
IMMEDIATELY AFTER GRADUATING from the University of Vermont in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in community and international development, Shaun Gilpin was hired by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) in Burlington.
He rose to director of its mobile homes program just one year later.
By 2012 he was awarded as a Housing Hero by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.
Then he was recruited and trained by the prestigious Snelling Center’s Vermont Leadership Institute in its Class of 2013.
And in fall of 2013, he landed a job at the state level – he’s now housing policy analyst for the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development.
It sounds like a meteoric rise of a fast-paced career achiever.
But there’s one important aspect to this story that changed everything in Shaun Gilpin’s career.
UVM Prepared Him for Uncanny Career
First let’s back up to his time at the University of Vermont. As a student of community and international development, Professor Dan Baker took Gilpin under his wing, Gilpin participated in Baker’s service learning courses in Vermont and Honduras and in Dan’s significant and far reaching mobile home research. Since 2005, through his Vermont Mobile Home Park Research Collaborative, Dan has been investigating how the communities function, their vulnerabilities and how uninhabitable homes can be deconstructed and diverted from landfills.
Gilpin has told the story that right after graduation, he walked into a job interview at CVOEO with a report on mobile homes in hand that he and Sarah Woodward ‘10 had written for Dan Baker’s Project Development and Planning course. Shaun Gilpin already had been working on the mobile home project for two and a half years, so of course he got the job! And he says he still uses UVM course materials on the job.
But two years into Gilpin’s job with CVOEO’s mobile home project, on August 29, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene tested his mettle.
But Nothing Could Prepare Him for What Came Next
The devastating hurricane force that ripped Vermont in half along its rivers, hit its most vulnerable citizens the hardest.
Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup of the Vermont Community Foundation described what happened next. He said, “mobile home residents were deeply and disproportionately affected. Hundreds of families lost their homes, their neighborhood and their community. As very low-income people, often elderly, living with disabilities or other compounding factors, they were in danger of being manipulated, swindled and/or simply forgotten.”
He goes on: “Without Shaun’s awe-inspiring leadership and commitment, they would have been left homeless and bereft. Shaun's compassion, dogged determination and commitment to raising the voices of the dispossessed is truly one of the most inspiring stories of the Irene recovery.”
“Specifically, Shaun led the effort to identify and organize recovery efforts; he worked tirelessly to coordinate state, federal, philanthropic, social service and private agencies; and he refused to stop searching for every possible recovery resource to support mobile home park families. His social justice frame ensured that all partners were held accountable to those they were serving. He was one of the few people involved in the recovery effort who was truly trusted and beloved by everyone. Shaun's work leveraged millions of dollars of additional direct aid for impacted families that would not have been available without his leadership.”
His previous employer the CVOEO, Ted Wimpey, added, “Also ongoing under Shaun's leadership, the Mobile Home Project moved assertively to assist mobile home owners threatened with park sale or closure – not only to help save their parks but, in several cases, to assist in instituting resident cooperative ownership.
Building on UVM’s awesome and incredibly timely Vermont Mobile Home Park Research Collaborative, Gilpin expanded UVM’s work into the state. "When the unthinkable happened, he was there fully prepared to lead and to serve. Shaun Gilpin has changed the conversation on the nature of affordable housing in Vermont and will influence policy and the direction in years to come," said Dean Tom Vogelmann in presenting Gilpin the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences New Achiever Award on May 10 at the College's alumni and friends awards dinner on campus. Also receiving a New Achiever Award was James Henley '04. Other recipients were Larry K. Forcier Outstanding Senior Hillary Laggis '14; Outstanding Alumni Louise Calderwood, Linda Kohn and James Anderson; and Robert O. Sinclair Cup the late Stew Gibson.
In receiving the award, Shaun Gilpin proved once again what his friends and colleagues have been saying about him all along. "I may have been the face of these efforts (to assist and empower people in mobile homes and other affordable housing), but the credit is not mine," Gilpin started modestly. He says he was propelled into the limelight "by events beyond my control and many people who carried out the work."
Referencing Isaac Newton's famous quote about accomplishments being built on those who have gone before: "If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants," Gilpin begs to differ.
"We like to point to our 'giants,' but, we stand on the shoulders of people who grow our food, fix our roads...who deal with daily challenges that make our concerns seem trite," he said, as a number of audience members took to wiping their eyes. Gilpin sees this as his call to responsibility and "a daily reminder that the bar is set high."