Cornerstones Blog

The Power of Storytelling to Build Community and Inspire Action

We recently hosted a Heart & Soul Talk, Stories to Action—How Listening Can Lead to Change, focused on the power of stories to galvanize community action. Our speakers shared compelling examples of action that happened from saving an African-American church and cemetery to restoring an historic theater. Listen to the call recording.

We knew that many of our listeners have also experienced the power of stories in their communities. So, we asked our audience to share how stories have inspired action in their communities. More than 30 people shared ideas, and we found some common themes—communities coming together around a devastating loss, a revered historic figure, a beloved place. Here is a small selection of what we heard. Please add your own examples in the comments.

Boles Fire Community Disaster Relief Fund (Weed, California)

Video tells the story that inspired a community in California to come together after fire ravaged the town. In an alarming 120 minutes on Sept. 15, 2014, the Boles Fire in Weed (pop. 2,912), California destroyed 143 homes, two churches, and businesses--including a food bank, the library, Head Start offices, and the community center. The fire also severely damaged a lumber mill, displacing 60 workers. Almost one third of the town’s property owners and renters were affected.

Immediately after the fire, the Shasta Regional Community Foundation (SRCF)  attended first responder meetings and provided a fiscal sponsorship for relief efforts as part of the newly formed Weed Long Term Recovery Group. The fire story was captured on video to help in fundraising.

The Community Foundation took the lead to circulate the video via links on websites, social media, and as it turns out, at a fundraising opportunity with local country music legend Merle Haggard. He agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from  a concert to disaster relief and encouraged attendees to give generously. Links to the fund were shared far and wide and donations came from around the country and beyond. From anonymous donors, to kids emptying their piggy banks, the heartwarming response raised nearly $22,000 in just eight hours and peaked at just over $641,000.

Watch the Disaster Relief Fund video.

Swamp Gravy (Colquit, Georgia)

Each year since 1991, Colquitt/Miller Arts Council in Colquitt (pop. 2,000), Georgia has collected stories from community members around a theme and turned them into a performance piece called Swamp Gravy.  The plays are produced in March and October; the theme of this year’s play is “Home.” The stories are collected from a wide variety of people in southwest Georgia and are performed by a multigenerational cast of 85 people. Swamp Gravy has brought a sense of empowerment and pride in heritage to local people while boosting the cultural tourism industry, and in turn, economic revitalization. More information is available at


Clemmons Family Farm (Charlotte, Vermont)

In Vermont, one family is preserving an important piece of history and raising awareness about it through story. Lydia Clemmons’ parents, Jack and Lydia Clemmons, are both 93 years old and live in Charlotte (pop. 3,754), Vermont where they have owned and operated one of the largest African American-owned farms in the state. Less than half of one percent of farms in the U.S. are owned by African Americans. During the senior Clemmons' lifetimes, African Americans in the U.S. have lost 40 million acres of land, now owning only about three million acres.

Lydia and her siblings are working to preserve the farm as well as their family legacy. They have spent the last year documenting stories from their parents to capture the farm’s history and are mobilizing the community to help preserve the farm. Early reactions show promising results—videos featuring Jack and Lydia inspired the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing to add the farm to the state's African American Heritage Trail.

Watch a video about the Clemmons Family Farm.

Gathering Our Voice

The Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship designed the Gathering Our Voice program to celebrate and strengthen the sense of place in North Central Washington by gathering and sharing hundreds of stories with the intent of inspiring community action. Stories have been collected since 2005 and shared in a variety of ways—local news, videos, and even a forthcoming book. Community members can also hear the stories through the Listening Post Network, a system that encourages people to learn more about local landmarks by listening to stories while they are out and about in the community. More at

Thanks to our contributors: Audra Beylik, Joy Jinks, Lydia Clemmons and Nancy Warner.

Listen to the February Heart & Soul Talks call recording:

Creative Placemaking Needs to Happen Now in Small Towns

image of  Zach Mannheimer

Q & A with Zachary Mannheimer, 39, principal community planner, McClure Engineering Co.

Zachary Mannheimer is a featured speaker in an upcoming webinar on March 23, 2017, Creative Placemaking: Economic Development for the Next Generation, co-sponsored by Citizens' Institute on Rural Design. We interviewed Zachary about the work he does and what motivates him. 

Q: What is creative placemaking?

ZM: Basically it means, “How do you enrich a community through cultural and entrepreneurial ideas?” For the most part it’s been done in urban areas like Detroit, but not a lot has been done in rural areas, which is the twist I’m putting on it.  I’m specializing in rural areas, which is rare in creative placemaking. I see the future of our country being in more rural areas because of population growth and urban areas running out of space. Places that were once out in the sticks are going to be part of urban areas. This is going to be happening in the next 30 years. Are you prepared for it? If you aren’t prepared for it you are going to go the way of the dodo. Rural areas have to adapt now and create amenities that people are looking for or they are going to struggle to remain a vibrant and rural community.

Q: After you arrived in Des Moines, you founded the Des Moines Social Club in 2009, an arts venue that features space for performing and visual arts along with classrooms. What prompted you to create this place?

ZM: I was in Brooklyn, New York, where I ran the Subjective Theater Company with a mission to inspire creativity and social responsibility. It had great acclaim, but nearly everybody who came to our shows agreed with our  opinion  I knew there were other places in the country to do this work, but I wasn’t sure where. I drove to 22 cities over eight weeks in 2007. I visited each city for three to five days and asked lots of questions and ultimately chose Iowa and Des Moines.  

Everyone in my family said I was nuts and would be back in a year. They were right about the nuts part, but I moved here the day after my 30th birthday in 2007. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any funding or anything, but I wanted to start this social club.

I became a maître d’ at a private club and met community leaders and that worked out well—we were able to secure grants after eight months. We got a one-year lease in a crappy building, and we started.

The idea was to create a venue where all political ideologies, all demographics, all walks of life can actively participate on a regular basis. The goal was to create community through the arts. We tried to have two events every night that drew opposite crowds.  You’ll have a Shakespeare and a punk band; a culinary class and a hip-hop festival, a graffiti festival and a momma-and-me yoga class. The goal is, “How do we change the community through arts?” We do it by creating a safe space but people come for different reasons and they blend. 

Q: After founding the social club, you transitioned to the for-profit business world, butstayed focused on creative placemaking first at Iowa Business Growth and now McClure Engineering.  What’s been your favorite project?

ZM: I would say Fort Dodge. It’s in process. Fort Dodge is a town of 25,000 an hour and a half north of Des Moines. One of their issues is they have Warden Plaza Hotel in the center of downtown. It’s 260,000 square feet and it has been vacant for 25 years. We came in to figure out what the heck to do with this thing. If we couldn’t figure it out, they would knock it down. We did a cultural assessment. It told us that residents wanted a recreation center. They also wanted a cultural center. So we built a business model that formed a nonprofit that combined the rec center, with basketball courts, two pools, a workout center, and a cultural center. The upper floors were set aside for 80 to 90 market-rate apartments.  It all worked out on paper that it would survive if it was built, but it would cost $60 million. All but $8 million of it was accounted for in city bonding, new tax credits, historic tax credits, and the developer putting in their own equity. We are doing a fundraising campaign to bridge that gap.

Another project is in Earlham, which is 1,400 people and is about a half hour west of Des Moines. I helped a local person purchase an empty building on Main Street. We are turning it into to a farm-to-table restaurant with a nonprofit culinary school on the second story.  It opens this fall.

Q: How have you seen creative placemaking impact a community, in terms of its ripple effect?

ZM: The Des Moines Social Club brings $8 million into the community through economic activity stimulated due to the social club being there. It took an area in the downtown where not much was going on and now every single building around the social club is being developed. It’s been a major attraction and retention tool that has worked brilliantly. It has worked with over 1,000 artists a year, and it pays artist for their work. It’s working to establish Des Moines as a cultural center, which will equal more investment and more young people wanting to come here.

Q: When you are not creative placemaking, what do you enjoy doing?

ZM: I’ve got three kids all under seven so I’m very involved with them. I’m on the board of Iowa Public Radio. I’m a theater guy so I try to do as much theater as I can. 

Note: The webinar on March 23 has reached capacity, but please register using the "recording only" ticket type and we will send you the webinar recording when it is available. Thank you for your interest!

What are you doing this St. Patrick’s Day?

St. Patrick’s Day takes me back to when I was young.

I am excited for the day to begin and am ready for this average day of third grade. I grab my lunch box and walk down the steps into the kitchen and out the door. As I step outside I feel a pinch on my right arm, I turn around and see my dad looking displeased with me. “Go put on some green, it’s Saint Patrick’s Day,” he says.

In my mind, I associate this holiday with pinching, shamrocks, leprechauns, green beer, and my dad insisting I wear green to school back when I was about the size of a leprechaun. But, what is the history around this holiday?

According to the History Channel: “St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17, the saint’s religious feast day and the anniversary of his death in the fifth century. The Irish have observed this day as a religious holiday for over 1,000 years. On St. Patrick’s Day, which falls during the Christian season of Lent, Irish families would traditionally attend church in the morning and celebrate in the afternoon. Lenten prohibitions against the consumption of meat were waived and people would dance, drink and feast–on the traditional meal of Irish bacon and cabbage.”

In America and around the world, many people associate this holiday with drinking. This year, why not try something new and exciting for the luckiest holiday? Take some time to learn more about Irish culture and where the holiday originated. 

Here are some ways to celebrate and learn more about St. Patrick’s Day:

A screening of an Irish film at a community center or library

Learn about the Irish culture from your couch. To find some great titles check out this link: 

Sharing an Irish meal or having an Irish pot luck that's public

Why go out to eat when you can cook a traditional Irish meal at home or with your community? Here are some meals to try: Corned Beef dinner, Irish Brown Bread, and Beef Stew. Check out this recipe for Beef Stew:

Watch a hurling game

Hurling originated in Ireland and it is about 3,000 years old. It involves two teams and 15 players. Check out this video: 

These ideas are from, to find more fun ideas check out this blog post: 

Town Meeting Day

If you are anything like me, the words “Town Meeting Day” don’t mean much. Up until this year I had no idea that the state where I live and was raised had such an interesting tradition.

According to James William Sullivan author of Direct Legislation by the Citizen Through the Initiative and Referendum“Town meeting is a form of local government practiced in the U.S. region of New England since colonial times, and in some western states since at least the late 19th century. Typically conducted by New England towns, town meeting can also refer to meetings of other governmental bodies, such as school districts or water districts. While the uses and laws vary from state to state, the general form is for residents of the town or school district to gather once a year and act as a legislative body, voting on operating budgets, laws, and other matters for the community's operation over the following 12 months.” 

You may be thinking, "This sounds kind of interesting but, why would I spend my time going to this?" Here are some reasons:

  1. Participate in and watch democracy at work. Plus, it is your civic duty. Making your opinion count in your local community will make a difference that you can see.

  2. Be part of the solution. We all complain about things in our community but you can’t complain if you haven’t bothered to make your opinion heard. Maybe many people in the community agree with you about an issue but nobody will vocalize their opinion.

  3. Meet your neighbors. There are so many types of people in a community, and it is refreshing to hear different opinions.

Vermont’s Town Meeting Day happens the first Tuesday of March. Go find out if and when your state has a Town Meeting Day. Better yet, join your fellow community members and go make your opinions heard.

To hear more, watch this video from an expert of Town Meeting Day, Frank Bryan, Professor Emeritus, University of Vermont.

Teens in Iowa Envision a Future There

Bellevue Heart & Soul recently sponsored a workshop and town hall meeting with two local high schools to create a vision for how young people see themselves in the future of Bellevue, Iowa.  Students spoke about their vision and community members joined them in creating an action plan for implementation.

Results from a survey of middle school through high school students were presented during the event, and helped provide insight for the discussions. Findings of the survey, which was facilitated by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship included:

  • nearly two-thirds of teens picture themselves living in the Bellevue area in the future, stating that it was a good place to raise a family, and has strong family ties and quality schools
  • 15% said they had been asked for their input about the future of the community
  • 68% said they would volunteer if asked by an adult community leader to become involved

Bellevue Heart & Soul is a partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque. 

Watch the video:

Three Towns. Three Challenges. One Solution. Engage Everyone.

The February issue of Colorado Municipalities magazine featured an article on Community Heart & Soul® and its impact in three communities--Cortez, Golden and the North Fork Valley. Each faced different challenges and all found that engaging residents made their communities stronger and more cohesive.

Reprinted with permission.


image of chalk board

By Alece Montez-Griego, Director of Programs, Orton Family Foundation

WHEN HIGHWAY 491 IN CORTEZ was slated for repaving by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), municipal officials saw an opportunity to turn an eyesore entryway into a welcoming gateway. The project happened to come up at the same time the City was busy engaging residents in Cortez Heart & Soul, which was the name Cortez chose for its Community Heart & Soul® project.

Developed by the Orton Family Foundation, the method brings a broad range of residents together to determine what they most value about where they live. Cortez’s story and the stories included here from other towns illustrate the power of resident-driven plans and action that is rooted in what matters most to them — in other words residents’ “heart and soul.” 

In Cortez, improving the appearance of downtown was one of those priorities. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s plans for South Broadway, as Highway 491 is called within municipal limits, did not align with what residents envisioned.

“The design was completely counter to what the Heart & Soul Team had been hearing from residents. I called it doubling down on ugly. We had this really ugly entrance. CDOT’s initial plan was to patch these old medians, and make them look like a calico cat that they would not touch again for another 40 years,” Cortez City Manager Shane Hale said.

The city council responded by allocating $650,000 to begin making changes downtown, no small amount for a municipality of 8,600 residents. Working with a design team of landscape architects and civil and traffic engineers, the City held several design charrettes with the community. Additionally, the Cortez City Council broadened the initial design to include several streets in the downtown core, ensuring that Cortez had a cohesive plan moving forward.

Knowing support existed among residents made the city council and the planning department case even stronger. Cortez approached the state with designs by the community and pushed for what they wanted. In the end, tired and broken concrete was replaced with drought-tolerant plants, trees, and shrubs. Unsafe streetlights were updated through a partnership between the City and Empire Electric Association. Following the project, two new businesses were built on vacant lots, welcome additions that countered the tide of development that had previously occurred only on the east side of town near Walmart. Getting CDOT to allow Cortez to codesign the highway was groundbreaking.

There was another groundbreaking aspect of the project — the role that the Ute Mountain Ute tribe played. Key tenets of Community Heart & Soul are to involve everyone and reach people whose voices had been missing. The City saw one element of the project as a chance to involve the tribe, including a missing voice and bridging a historical divide. Design of the welcome sign was given over to the tribe, as this is its entryway to Cortez. All of the design work was conducted on tribal lands, with very little input from city leadership, which was intentional. The significance of this went beyond the signage. Having communication with the tribe allowed the town to be aware of and honor the local culture and traditions. One tribal member said that because of Heart & Soul, the tribe and city met in a way that had not happened before, providing the opportunity to talk about  historical traumas and marking the start of a change in the relationship between the two.

What happened in Cortez illustrates how community engagement lifts up a community. Engaging residents helped the City establish priorities and push for change. The result was a gateway that attracted visitors and businesses and began a better relationship with neighbors. Involving a broad representation of residents and identifying what they love about where they live helps communities chart a course that leads to a better quality of life for everyone. Cortez is a good example of that. Here are other examples of Colorado towns that strengthened their communities in different ways through Community Heart & Soul. 

Read more

How Storytelling Galvanized a Community around a Lost Piece of its History

image of church

The story of the discovery of  an 1870s church built by a freed slave in Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania, illustrates the power of storytelling to not only illuminate the past, but to galvanize a community around an important piece of its history.

As often happens with discoveries, a combination of curiosity, timing, and coincidence began to align when high school students in Lindsay Varner’s oral history class found a newspaper article that mentioned an abandoned African-American church in Mount Holly Springs. It made sense that the area would have an African-American church. The Underground Railroad went through the area and Mount Holly Springs was home to a free black community that settled there before the Civil War.

Determined to find the church, Varner drove down a narrow, dirt road at the foot of a hill where she believed the church would be. She found only a few dozen gravestones leaning in a grassy lot.

Meanwhile, Varner’s attention turned to her role as project coordinator for the Greater Carlisle Heart & Soul, a Community Heart & Soul® project funded with a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. A significant component of the project entailed gathering stories from community members to find out what matters most to them about where they live.

Among the people whose names surfaced for interviews were “the Gumby sisters,” three longtime residents of Mount Holly Springs. She set up an interview with the two younger sisters, both in their 80s, who, it turned out, had ties to the church. Their grandfather, a former slave and Civil War soldier, built the church and was its first pastor.

grave stone

Harriet Gumby took Varner to the church. The one room, weatherworn, wooden structure was cloaked in vines. Poison ivy created a natural barrier around the church. Vultures swooped out from the eaves, prompting Gumby to note that they were standing guard over the place. Varner peered inside and saw a scene frozen in time. The pastors’ chairs, pews, hymnals, religious comic books, an oil lamp, even a piano and pump organ were all in the building.

“It was like a time capsule. It was amazing. It was absolutely incredible. When I walked into the church I’d never seen anything like it,” Varner said.

Varner knew this was an important piece of history. She went to work assembling a team of local leaders, historians, and preservation experts, who all kept the discovery quiet until the building, which had a hole in the roof and was deep in dust, could be stabilized and the contents secured.

In September, Varner led a tour of the church. Among those on the tour was a family whose ancestor, U.S. Colored Troops veteran, was buried in the cemetery. They’d been searching for the burial place for years and were so moved when they found it, they offered to help locate a shipping container to temporarily house artifacts from the church. 

Today, the 1870s Mount Tabor AME Zion Church has brought the community together to work on preserving this piece of African-American history.

“This church is part of African-American history. It’s part of Mount Holly’s history. It’s part of Cumberland County’s history. It plays into a much wider narrative than just being a personal connection,” Varner said. “And that’s where we are at this moment, working to preserve both the items inside and the memory of the church as well as the cemetery.”

Finding Your Hometown’s Heartbeat: Community Engagement with Bouncy Castles, Beer Coasters, and Ball Games

When it comes to community engagement, high-tech tools and complicated processes often take center-stage, but Heart & Soul communities find that successful engagement comes from the simple act of connecting with residents to learn why they love their town.

As part of the Heart & Soul Talks series, three speakers joined Orton Family Foundation on January 26 to talk about successful community engagement. Their strategies weren’t traditional—block parties, living room conversations, and soccer tournaments—but they got results.

Jim Bennett, city manager in Biddeford, Maine, and past president of International City/County Management Association (ICMA), emphasized the importance of community pride in garnering engagement.

 “People love where they live—they want to be proud of their hometown. Having pride in the community is a powerful motive,” he said.

He should know. For years, Biddeford’s moniker “Trash Town” overshadowed its best assets—historic downtown buildings, affordability, family friendliness—preventing positive growth and investment. Community Heart & Soul® helped the whole community rediscover those things that make Biddeford a great place to live, restoring pride and spurring action to clean up downtown. Today, commercial real estate values in downtown have averaged a 60% increase in value since 2014, residential values are up by 12%, and 1.6 million square feet of previously abandoned mill space is almost full.

This remarkable turnaround began with community engagement.

 “There is something special in every community. The challenge is to find what that is—the heartbeat, why people care,” he shared.  

In Biddeford, that challenge was met through conversations between residents—activities like youth interviews with their grandparents, a storytelling hotline, neighborhood meetings, and listening to Franco elders at the local Franco-American festival.

In contrast to  Biddeford, Golden, Colorado, wasn’t struggling when it embarked on Heart & Soul in 2010, and it has only grown more prosperous since. Community engagement that included block parties with bouncy castles, hotdogs, and opportunities for citizens to connect with city staff were at the heart of the process. The result was a set of guiding principles that have stood the test of time.

Seven years later, the city is still seeing positive results, and the culture of citizen engagement, confidence in government, and a welcoming community has been verified by the National Citizen Survey and the Gallup Well-being Index.

Mike’s favorite tip for engagement comes from another town, Paonia, Colorado, where the Heart & Soul Team used bar coasters to collect input from 30-somethings at the local brewpub.

Kirsten Sackett, director of community development in Ellensburg, Washington, first experienced the benefits of Community Heart & Soul while working in Cortez, Colorado. She is leading a similar effort in Ellensburg, starting with deliberate outreach to community members. Kirsten and her staff are reaching residents in unlikely places, at least for city government. One of their first steps was a local soccer tournament, where they connected with parents during games. On the importance of intentional communication, Kirsten recommends, “Go to the places where people are most familiar, where people are available, and where trust can be built.”

Hear more from Jim, Mike and Kirsten in the Heart & Soul Talks recording: