Caitlyn Davison's 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:

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:

Saving Main Street: Eleven Ideas for Spurring Investment in Downtown Businesses

Does it feel like every time you walk downtown one more storefront is vacant? Combating the downward momentum of vacancy and neglect is no easy feat. Here are eleven ideas for spurring investment in downtown businesses that can put your town on a path toward revitalization.

  1. Establish a business-to-business marketplace.  The Let’s Do Business, Tulsa! online directory matches local buyers with local sources, helping businesses gain exposure, build sales, and save money.
  2. Host a pitchfest. Pitchfests showcase local entrepreneurs, connecting them with local investors and community members. See a showcase in action—watch this video from Seacoast Local’s first entrepreneur showcase.
  3. Launch a Downtown Development Revolving Loan Fund. Revolving loan funds can spur commercial redevelopment by offering below-market rate financing to municipalities and downtown authorities to fund capital projects.
  4. Organize a "Let’s Paint the Town” initiative. Princeton, Kentucky invited business owners and volunteers to roll up their sleeves and participate in downtown revitalization by restoring and painting building facades.
  5. Offer co-working space for startups and telecommuters. Veel Hoeden, a co-working space in rural Pella, Iowa, brings home-based professionals and independent contractors together under one roof.
  6. Create a community investment cooperative. The Sangudo Opportunity Development Co-operative in Alberta, Canada collects local money by selling membership and investment shares to community members. Funds are used to buy, rehab, and manage commercial and residential property.
  7. Link downtown businesses through technology. Dubbed the “internet of small businesses”, Supportland creates mini networks for attracting and retaining local customers.
  8. Build a local investing network. Local Investing Opportunities Network (LION) in East Jefferson County, Washington is a member-based organization that helps build investment-ready local businesses and connect those businesses with investors.
  9. Put together a Nearby gift registry. Nearby allows couples and expecting parents to create an online registry of items and services from local businesses. 
  10. Start a community email listDrew’s List is a hyperlocal email list for South Whidbey Island, Washington with over 4,500 subscribers (about half the island population). Weekly emails highlight downtown events, sales and other activities.
  11. Establish a Main Street, LLC. To combat the downward momentum of blight, Rick Hauser, Mayor of Perry, New York and owner of In. Site: Architecture developed Main Street, LLC, a community-wide for-profit development corporation. Main Street, LLC recognizes the quantitative and qualitative benefits of reversing blight and urges people to “put their money where their house is.”

On May 15, Rick Hauser joined CommunityMatters® and the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design™ for a 60-minute webinar. He offered new insights into a longstanding challenge for towns and small cities—getting the ball rolling to overcome vacancy and neglect in key downtown locations.

Watch the webinar recording:

Image credit: WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr Creative Commons,

Five Tips: Using Community Values to Make Tough Decisions

Our Community Heart & Soul approach to planning asks folks to ask each other, “What matters most?” because we believe in the power of shared values to shape better futures.  When enough people agree on the qualities of their town they care most about, everyone is better connected with each other and the community. Those strengthened ties inspire people to work together to protect and enhance what they care about. We know, because we have seen it happen. 

We’ve been along for the ride as places like Polson, Montana discovered their shared commitment to a natural environment and a healthy, active lifestyle.  In Colorado’s North Fork Valley, residents identified freedom, independence and personal responsibility as a key community value.  Essex, Vermont’s six core values include thoughtful growth and community connections. The content may differ from place to place, but we know first hand that the positive impact on social cohesion of defining and describing shared values is universal. 
Agreed-upon shared values help bind people together, and there are many, many ways that communities can uphold them to build stronger and more vibrant places.  But all communities face the same challenge:  They only have so much money, so much time, so many people offering their skills.  With increasingly limited resources, how can communities make choices about what actions are most important?
Here are five tips for using community values to help make decisions based on what matters most:


Tired of Being Stuck? New Leaders Can Help

One of the greatest barriers to change in small cities and towns is that we’re stuck.  Town staff don’t always have the time or resources to implement plans or take on new ideas. Community members are invited to offer feedback on plans and policies at public hearings, but they’re rarely invited to less intimidating, formal gatherings to share ideas, much less encouraged to initiate action on those plans and policies.  People are stuck in old roles, old mindsets and old habits. And the press of what needs to get done—often on a shoestring, doesn’t help make room to pick our heads up and think differently.    

Being stuck plays out in many ways —the plan sitting on a shelf collecting dust; the same ten people showing up to every meeting; the vote going against a proposal after many opportunities for input. 

Heart & Soul offers a path for communities to get unstuck, and also unlock the potential of residents to take action and responsibility.  To counter the untouched plan, Heart & Soul ties a community vision to early and achievable actions.  To involve more people, Heart & Soul insists on building trust and relationships first.  And, as local officials and staff meet residents on their own turf, conversations become more genuine and concerns are aired more freely before a decision is made or a bond vote appears on the ballot. 


5 Lessons for Engaging the Hard to Reach from Colorado’s North Fork Valley

Despite its small-town feel, affiliations with local industries sharply divide social life in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. Coal miners feel their jobs are under attack by national and local shifts in energy policy. “Hippies” (environmentalists, artists, and newcomers, in the vernacular) and miners sometimes disagree when it comes to local mines. Artists are rarely recognized as contributors to the local economy. People have a hard time just getting along, and they aren’t afraid to say it.

Given the underlying tensions, it’s no surprise that residents of the three valley towns, Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia, rarely see eye-to-eye when it comes to decisions about the future of their region. Times of economic instability make consensus more difficult to achieve, as the need to protect livelihoods eclipses other issues. In fact, many people in the North Fork Valley abstain from formal civic engagement altogether. Perhaps they doubt their voice will be heard. Maybe they’re skeptical of how decisions are made, or how community power is distributed. No matter the reasons, they are hard to reach.

To build community across such divides and engage hard-to-reach folks in community engagement and visioning, the Heart & Soul team initiated three storytelling projects. Keep reading to learn more about the projects, along with five lessons we’ve distilled from their efforts to help you engage the hard to reach in your own city or town.


Seven Ways to Increase Community Power in Local Decision-Making

CommunityMatters®, a partnership of seven national organizations including Orton, share the belief that people have the power to solve their community’s problems and direct future growth and change.

As leaders in the fields of civic engagement and community and economic development, the partners believe that by strengthening civic infrastructure, communities can become more prosperous, vibrant places to live.

Why is civic infrastructure key? Because, like the physical infrastructure that supports a community’s built environment, civic infrastructure supports the social sphere. It consists of the opportunities, activities and arenas, both online and face-to-face, that allow people to connect with each other, solve problems, make decisions and celebrate community.


This Valentine’s Day, Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, and I know what you are probably thinking…it’s a holiday that has been overtaken by the greeting card industry, that is full of obligations and expectations, that is just no fun anymore. But this year, I’m asking you to give good ol’ V-Day a second chance.

You see, Valentine’s Day reminds me of the construction paper hearts from elementary school, the awkwardness of making eye contact with your first crush, and all those little magical interactions that remind us we’re alive.

Sometimes those heart-on-your-sleeve moments are just what we need. In fact, I’d like to think that such moments are ones to be celebrated by whole communities.