Alumni Interview: Five Things That Matter with Rhoni Basden ’04

Meredith Morin
Rhoni Midden Basden ’04 is adept at crafting her surroundings into powerful teaching tools, a skill she learned, in part, at Burr and Burton. Rhoni is the Executive Director of Vermont Works for Women, a nonprofit based in Winooski that “promotes economic justice by advancing gender equity and supporting women and youth at every stage of their career journeys.”  
In her work, Rhoni focuses on opening spaces and opportunities for women through advocacy, job training, and community impact. While at Burr and Burton, Her connection with certain classes and teachers helped her envision the power of possibility for women in the workplace. Rhoni’s experience with an off-campus internship and classes in woodworking at Burr and Burton showed her the opportunities available to women in STEM and trades, allowing her to channel this passion into her work at Vermont Works for Women.  
Vermont Works for Women was founded in 1987 as Northern New England Tradeswomen, aimed at helping women succeed in careers in the trades. Today, the organization creates many pathways for career success, including high school outreach programs, like summer camps designed to expose girls to trade careers. They also host an annual, one-day trades and STEM career exploration conference called Women Can Do, which provides the opportunity for girls to “meet local employers, learn to use a variety of tools and equipment, and to expand their sense of what’s possible in education and career pathways.” 
After graduating from Burr and Burton, Rhoni initially attended Stetson University in Florida. “I thought I would go from snow to sand, but I was not a Florida girl,” she said. She transferred to the University of San Francisco and moved to Seattle after graduating. She then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where she worked for eight years, mostly for Girls, Inc., a girls' outreach program, and then moved to Essex, Vermont in December of 2019, “right before the world shut down.”  
The challenges of COVID specific to working women in Vermont became quickly obvious for Rhoni and Vermont Works for Women, which allowed her to deepen and crystallize the purpose of their work and help Vermont women find pathways to professional success. Rhoni is grateful to bring her passion to her work and relishes the opportunity to help women take advantage of the opportunities for all types of work in Vermont. 
Rhoni lives in Essex with her husband and two sons. 
Q: What is special about the mission of Vermont Works for Women?  
The privilege of my job is that I get to have a professional and personal passion for the work that we do, the mission that we have, and the programs that provide impact. I believe in the power of providing opportunities for economic independence and security for women and youth across Vermont. As someone who grew up in Vermont, this mission really resonates with me. I see the value in encouraging more youth to stay around. Growing up, I definitely did not see a potential opportunity for staying in Vermont, so, I kind of fled from here for college, and I never thought I would come back. It was after I had kids and was living across the United States that I recognized the great opportunities that Vermont has. I’m grateful that I get to bring the perspective of someone who grew up here and experienced some of the barriers specific to women or specific to industries. And hopefully, I get to play a role in helping to move that needle forward for women today and future generations to meet our state’s needs. 
Q: You came into this position in December 2019, and then the world drastically changed with COVID three months later. How did the world shutting down impact your work? 
In the beginning, I was really just trying to gain an understanding of the organization and what was needed at the time. When the pandemic struck, it impacted women deeply, so our organization was probably at our highest need point ever. We were getting calls and requests for help in so many different areas from such a variety of women and youth. It forced us to quickly create systems that better met needs. It allowed us to fundraise to provide that gap of support that was necessary. I feel that one of the best ways to get to know an organization is to see what it’s capable of during a massive time of need. While it was not an easy journey, I’m really grateful for it. I feel lucky because it launched Vermont Works for Women into new territory, which I’m not sure we would have or could have achieved in that same time frame.  
At Vermont Works for Women, we run employment and career services. During COVID, we started to notice that the requests for services were suddenly coming from all socioeconomic backgrounds:  ‘I need a new job. I need new training. I can no longer drive this far. I don’t have childcare (which was probably our #1.’) There was such diversity in who was coming to us, and it highlighted that the pandemic hit everyone. Nobody was spared, and specifically, women were hit the hardest and continue to struggle to recover. Adapting to COVID also allowed us to go hybrid with a lot of programming, which then allowed us to increase the number of women we could support. During that time, we increased programming across the state, which had been a long-standing goal, but had not been executed until then. And, we were able to drive fundraising up to provide the support needed from childcare to job retraining to internships and gap funding. A big majority of our work is grant funding. We are fortunate to partner with state agencies that help support our work, and individual donors as well. 
Q: What were you involved in as a student at Burr and Burton? 
Burr and Burton had a lot to offer. I played sports for a handful of years - field hockey and then a little bit of lacrosse. I really enjoyed my classes. I did woodworking and loved the elective programs I got to be a part of. My favorite class was taught by Mrs. Wright called The Sky is Blue, which culminated in a trip to The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The class culminated in a project, which asked us to create a visual representation of the Holocaust and present it to the class. Every student’s presentation was so drastically different.  
Q: How did your time at Burr and Burton influence your career? What do you take with you that you learned at BBA? 
One thing that I took for granted when I was at Burr and Burton that I’ve come to appreciate is the foundation I had academically. When I went off to college in Florida, I found that I was just far more academically prepared for that setting than a lot of my peers. Burr and Burton builds you up as an independent student and allows you to navigate your personal academic journey. So, it was a lot easier for me to translate that into the college experience. And, I also noticed that a lot of my peers just did not have the opportunities, the courses, or the extracurricular offerings we have at Burr and Burton. I think figuring that out helped inspire me to build quality around programming. I think Burr and Burton was a very lucky high school experience:  It was in a beautiful setting, I was challenged by a lot of my teachers, and the classes were unique. During my junior year, I took a class that allowed me to work during the school day. We partnered with local employers that matched students’ interests. I worked at the glass-blowing studio downtown. It was such a unique opportunity for me that I got to go to work in the community and learn that way. 
(At Vermont Works for Women), I go out and talk about the barriers for women and workplace gender roles. At Burr and Burton, I took three years of woodworking, and at times I was the only female in the class, but I never felt discouraged from it. I never felt that I couldn’t do it. I was able to push forward, and Burr and Burton was able to provide that opportunity.  
Now that I reflect back on it, I think that the one thing that I really take from Burr and Burton is that I was always challenged. I was pushed to do a little more. In the same way that woodworking was outside of my comfort zone, it was a challenge and a fun challenge. It’s interesting to go into a career now that really encourages that challenge - it’s pretty full circle. 
Q: Any advice for current Burr and Burton students? 
Try all! I wish I had done more in high school. I wish I had joined more clubs or experienced more because it goes by very quickly. There’s a lot to offer that brings value. And, stay connected to Vermont. Vermont has so many amazing opportunities and so much potential, and there’s so much talent. I’d love to keep more people here! Burr and Burton does a great job of recognizing (the value of) legacy and community. You can make friends here, and their cousins are there too, and their parents were probably high school sweethearts - there’s a lot of that (at Burr and Burton), and that feels special.