Citizens

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.

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: https://soundcloud.com/ortonfamilyfoundation/heart-soul-talks-strengthen-your-community-through-engagement.

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:

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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. 

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Making Public Participation Legal

This was originally published by Sandy Heierbacher, Director of NCDD. The Foundation is proud to re-post Sandy’s recent announcement of a national initiative to make more meaningful, broad citizen engagement the law, rather than the exception. NCDD and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium (DDC), two members of CommunityMatters Partners, are part of the working group that conceived and developed the initiative. 

Most laws that govern public participation in the U.S. are over thirty years old. They do not match the expectations and capacities of citizens today, they pre-date the Internet, and they do not reflect the lessons learned in the last two decades about how citizens and governments can work together. Increasingly, public administrators and public engagement practitioners are hindered by the fact that it’s unclear if many of the best practices in participation are even allowed by the law.

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Essex Schools Reflect Town’s Heart & Soul Values

As students returned to school this fall, I began to notice things were just a little bit different.

There were all the usual signs of school starting up: sidewalks lined with young walkers, streets sprinkled with bikers, baseball hats turned backwards, colorful backpacks, glittery hair ribbons and flashy footwear.

Children not quite school-aged were walking with their older siblings, anxiously waiting for the day when it will be their turn to have a backpack over their shoulders. Flowers were blooming at school entrances, and inside, freshly waxed floors shined.

Yet something still seemed just a little bit different.

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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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Engage everyone…even in the big city?

Boston, MA aerialBoston is changing rapidly, by-and-large for the better. There are cranes everywhere. Our population is growing. We’re revitalizing old neighborhoods and building new ones. But, as even expert planners acknowledge, artists and young adults recently out of college can’t afford to live and work here. My neighborhood has lost its middle class.

There are public housing units, high-end condos and expensive single-family residences, but very little in between. Elsewhere, preservationists struggle to save historically important neighborhood buildings while others bemoan the lack of cutting-edge architecture.

I enjoy thinking about how cities grow and change. I keep up to date on the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) latest decisions, have weighed in on development proposals in neighborhood forums, and served on a “citizen advisory committee” when the BRA rezoned a broad swath of my neighborhood.

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