Arts & Culture

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. 

Given the opportunity, people will feel ownership for their community and take action to make it a better place. Unlike formal leadership training programs, Heart & Soul allows people to dive right in, get their feet wet, fill gaps as needs arise, and discover their untapped leadership skills. In many of our demonstration towns, Heart & Soul has produced the conditions of trust where people to feel they can step forward and take some risks, and that’s when new ideas and new leaders emerge.

In Golden, Colorado, Councilwoman Saoirse Charis-Graves wanted nothing to do with local politics until she experienced her city’s commitment to listening to and understanding the people who live there.  City staff wasn’t just holding the typical meetings at the local community center or City Hall, they were putting time and resources into building relationships.  Through Heart & Soul, the city hosted block parties in every neighborhood, the beginning of genuine conversations about what people care about most, and their hopes and dreams for their neighborhoods and city.  For Councilor Charis-Graves, this was essential for establishing trust, and for countering negative perceptions that you can’t talk to city hall.  Not only did she attend block parties, but she got involved with Heart & Soul and then ran for public office…and she was elected.  

Click below to see a brief video about Saoirse:

 

Across the country in Damariscotta, Maine, Selectwoman Robin Mayer was a newcomer to town, but she stepped right up to help after seeing a piece in the newspaper about her community’s plans to apply for federal grant funding, which she knew a thing or two about.  Her contributions led to involvement with Heart & Soul.  When a seat on the town select board opened up, she won as a write-in candidate after telling friends and colleagues that, yes, she was committed to serving her community. 

It’s difficult to believe that these community leaders weren’t gunning for local politics early on, but therein lies the power of Heart & Soul. Changing the way we do business—whether as elected and appointed officials, town staff, local tradesmen, even residents—can shake things up just enough for new doors to crack open. 

Becoming an elected official isn’t the only way to demonstrate community leadership, of course. 

Mary Hockenberry moved to the North Fork Valley to retire and swore she’d never volunteer for anything again.  After hearing about the Heart & Soul process and its efforts to identify shared community values, she found herself offering time and expertise as a central member of the project team.  Mary was so compelled by the effort that she wanted to be a doer, not just a planner.  She purchased a vacant church and converted it into a studio space and art center for emerging artists.  When the space opens later this year, Church of Art will promote the shared community value of a steady economy.

Mary’s story is similar to Donna Steward of Cortez.  As a newbie in town, Donna became involved in Heart & Soul after seeing an advertisement for the initiative in the local paper.  Donna used her artistic talents to improve communications and attract more people to community events.  While volunteering added value to the project, Donna saw a way to make an even bigger difference.  She initiated partnerships to create Cortez Works, an affordable co-working space that offers a collaborative work environment for freelancers, startups and small businesses.  

Making Change Through Stories, Large and Small

Storytelling and Social ChangeStorytelling has caught on as a means of social change and civic engagement in the last five to ten years, and has been a popular practice for, well, pretty much forever. Consider the use of slave narratives in the US abolitionist movement, or popular theater performed from early on in the farmworker movement.

Anyone reading this blog has probably thought about how stories can motivate people to volunteer or donate money; a personal narrative tugs at your heart and compels you to help out.

Perhaps less obvious are other applications of storytelling that change the way people interact within communities: to assess a community’s needs and strengths (Orton’s Heart & Soul is a great example); to organize people in a group (consider Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” method, adapted by the 2008 Obama campaign); to educate the public (such as Voice of Witness does with human rights); or to advocate a cause (examples include the grantees of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundation).

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Seeing Green: The Intersection of the Economy, Ecology and Character

Vermont has just exploded into summer. The weekly farmer’s markets are in full swing and summertime concerts, fairs, parades and art walks are just starting. It’s an exciting time and one that brings with it the opportunity to grow and reap the harvest together.

It’s a great time of year to be in Vermont: summer has arrived and it’s taken its sweet time to get here so we appreciate it all the more. In a mostly rural state, many communities have pinned their abilities to grow and thrive on the constancy of the cycle of seasons. A successful harvest or a big snowfall is not only beautiful to behold—they’re economic indicators as well, and the collective identity of the people who live here depend on that.

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Heart & Soul Principle 2: Explore Local Culture

This is the second post in a series that shows how our nine Heart & Soul Principles are coming to life on the ground in small towns across the country.

It has been said that only 10 percent of the culture of a place is seen, while the other 90 percent is unseen but expressed through habits and networks and how people interact.

This Principle is about paying attention to that 90 percent—to the peculiarities and richness of a singular place. It’s about taking time to question whether you’re really examining the culture of the whole community and not just the parts you already know (or thought you knew), and then applying that understanding to your project.

Here is the Principle:

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Reimagining America’s Streets

Americans’ expectations of our streets are changing. While we once saw streets exclusively as a means to move cars from one place to another as quickly as possible, we are increasingly recognizing them for what they are—our largest public space—and for what they can become—an opportunity to promote economic development, build community and even improve public health.

The Open Streets Project is leading this revolution in how we view and use streets. Also known as Ciclovias, Sunday Streets, Viva Streets (to name a few), Open Streets temporarily closes busy streets to automobiles so that people may use them for any activity but driving—walking, jogging, bicycling, dancing…name your physical activity—bringing thousands of people together to experience their city in a way that is normally forbidden.

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Building Community, One Slice at A Time

In celebration of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, Cornerstones is hungry to present a special pie post, by pie enthusiast and community artist, Josh Schachter.

I’m often late, though not for pie. But two seconds was all it took for me to miss the cut off for pie judging at the 32nd Annual Pie Festival in Pie Town, New Mexico, this fall.

My efforts to sweet talk the pie judge officials must not have been very discrete, as Pie Judge #15 immediately offered to give up her coveted spot to me. Knowing that she was about to enter Pie Heaven, I couldn’t bring myself to deprive her of this opportunity. Her kind offer reminded me of the generosity of spirit that pie instills in people and communities every day. After all, pie has slices for a reason; it is meant to be shared.

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Imagining North Adams

Every year, 120,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Northwestern corner of the Berkshires in Massachusetts and head for MASS MoCA.

They park next to the concrete channels of the Hoosic River and walk into a complex of historic brick mill buildings, repurposed as a world-class museum.

They spend a few hours, or a few days, exploring the cavernous galleries, and they collectively spend millions of dollars on tickets, souvenirs and gourmet food in the museum cafés.

What they usually don’t do is spend much of that time or money a block or two away—on Main Street. And it shows. While North Adams has made many efforts, and admirable progress, to reinvent itself as a vibrant arts community, its Main Street still struggles to fill up storefronts, local businesses struggle to stay afloat, and many residents struggle to find jobs and rise above the poverty line. (Check out this 2012 piece from NPR for the full story.)

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Keeping it Civil in Social Media Land

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Social media (blogs, social network sites and comment forums) has transformed and democratized the way in which we both receive and provide information and opinion. It has shifted the control of news and opinion away from a limited number of professional reporters and news agencies and turned it over to the public. In 2010, there were nearly one million new blog posts a day.

Given this rapid spread and its indiscriminate nature, social media has been touted as a way to revitalize public discourse and engage new voices. In the Middle East, we have seen it inspire the transformation of political systems. Yet, here at home, has it actually lived up to expectations and improved how we engage in public discussions?

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