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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.
Many small towns throughout the United States are engaging young people in planning and community development projects in a variety of creative ways. By recognizing and valuing the tremendous energy and optimism students bring to local development efforts, these communities are building stronger and more lasting bonds between young people and their hometowns, which is particularly important in small places that are seeing their youth migrate away after high school.
Biddeford, Maine, provides a useful case study of how students can be genuinely involved in a wider community visioning process while also gaining a new appreciation for the history and potential of their hometown.
Biddeford’s 2011 Downtown Master Plan includes the words “youth” or “students” 157 times over its 217 pages. This was not an accident, but rather a demonstration of this New England mill town’s strong commitment to including young people and students in its visioning and community development efforts. Students were a driving force in the master plan development process, launched through a partnership of the City of Biddeford, its main street organization Heart of Biddeford, and the Orton Family Foundation, an organization that works with small towns and cities to support local community planning.
The result of this initiative has been not only the publication of the Downtown Master Plan, but also the blossoming of strong community relationships, an appreciation of the city’s shared history and values, and a boost to local economic development.
Biddeford, a city of 20,000 residents located 20 miles south of Portland on the Saco River, has a rich and vibrant history as a textile manufacturing center. However, decades of prosperity began to wind down in the years following World War II when many manufacturers sought cheaper labor and supplies in the Southern states. Population began to decrease and Biddeford’s downtown area, formerly a thriving gathering space for the community, began a steady decline as malls and shopping centers sprung up in the outer suburbs.
For years it looked as if Biddeford would go the way of many former industrial towns, into a state of permanent decline. Then, in the 1980s, efforts were begun to fund downtown infrastructure and streetscape improvements. During this time, the Downtown Development Commission (DDC) was also established to support downtown revitalization and community development efforts. In 2008 in conjunction with the Orton Family Foundation, the city began what was known as the Heart & Soul Community Planning process, which included community storytelling, neighborhood meetings, and the development and publication of the Downtown Master Plan.
In all three of these stages, Biddeford’s youth played an important role. Local high school students were active participants in community meetings, interviewed relatives and community members about their lives and recollections of Biddeford, and organized historical and cultural tours of the city’s mills.
The visioning and storytelling process has instilled a new sense of pride in local residents, particularly among Biddeford’s youth who for years saw no hope in the future of their town. “I’m ashamed to admit it now, but for many years I didn’t like my hometown,” says Tom Laverriere, a recent graduate of Biddeford High School. “Up until I was about 15 I thought it was boring, had no real opportunities, and was inferior to neighboring communities. It wasn’t until I got involved that I realized how great it is.”
“I have seen changes in the way the teenagers look at themselves and their town,” observes Carolyn Gosselin, a Biddeford High School English teacher. Gosselin’s Senior English Perspectives in Literature course teaches students about the oral storytelling tradition by having them interview family members and local residents about their lives and experiences in Biddeford. Field trips were arranged for the students to visit the downtown area and the mill complexes, mapping their travels and adventures using GPS. For many students, this was their first time venturing into the downtown area, a place that many had been told to stay away from while growing up. These trips ignited new student interest in downtown, as many were attracted by the history, architecture, and possibility of reviving the area into a place they would want to visit more often.
Victoria Eon, a sophomore at McGill University and graduate of Biddeford High, notes how the storytelling process and student-led historic tours of the mills, including popular “ghost tours,” have created a new connection to her town and fellow students. “Engaging in these conversations has brought me closer to my peers. I’m excited that they are excited, and proud that they — at long last — feel proud of their humble roots without being asked why.”
The mills, which for so many years provided jobs, security, and a sense of identity, are once again a focal point in this new chapter in Biddeford’s story. Of particular pride is the Pepperell Mill campus, home to around 70 commercial tenants and 81 residential apartments.
“These buildings of brick are my history,” says Eon. The progress being made in Biddeford “speaks to the resilience of the people these buildings inspire,” she says. It is the resilience of this town — both in its built history and social fabric – that is moving Biddeford forward, led by young people who want to see a stronger future for their community.
Click here to read a longer version of this case study, which includes sections on lessons learned and student interviews.
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.More
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.More
Storytelling 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).More
This is the last in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).
Some people are uncomfortable talking about power. While power is the currency of political activists, it’s a dirty word to many of us—like “money,” it is not mentioned in polite company. But listen for words like “influence,” “impact,” “authority,” and “control,” and notice how often they come up. Ultimately, power is a crucial element of democracy and something we need to acknowledge and discuss in community decision making—early and often.
It would be helpful if every decision-making process came with its own “power gauge.” Imagine a dial like an old-fashioned speedometer that would tell us how leaders answer the question, “Who makes the decision?” At one end, the dial reads “Me”—the leader holds all the power. In the center, “We”—decisions are made together. At the far end, “You”—citizens make the decisions. Exactly where the needle quivers on this dial should be clear to every leader who plans to engage the public, and to every citizen before he or she commits time to the process.More
This is the third in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).
The scene at the public hearing is all too familiar. A tired-looking panel sits in front of the auditorium at a table cluttered with documents and microphones; although the room is full of chairs, most are empty. Citizen questions and discussion are not encouraged, testimony is polarized and tempers flare.
The “public hearing” is one of the most-used citizen participation processes in the United States, with many local and state governments legally mandated to use it. But leaders and citizens are often frustrated by the format.
While originally devised to improve participation, hearings are too often framed as contests between points of view. They’re not structured to seek common ground or collaboration, and occur too late in a process to be taken seriously.More
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.More