Heart & Soul

Putting Heart & Soul Into Words (and Action)

It can be hard to put into words—the magic that happens when Community Heart & Soul™ takes hold in a town.

Sometimes we refer to “it” as the secret sauce. “It” is also the tipping point when people go from focusing on what’s wrong with their town to seeing what’s possible. “It” is when a developer senses that good things are happening in a place and decides to invest in a vacant building downtown. “It” is when a longtime resident realizes her town is worth her time and runs for city council. “It” is when storytelling builds a bridge to a group that has traditionally been isolated. 

“It” is Community Heart & Soul.

The transformative power of Community Heart & Soul can be tough to describe, but the steps to get there are now clearly spelled out in our new Community Heart & Soul™ Field Guide.

After nearly a decade of listening, learning, refining, and listening some more, with our staff on the ground in small towns in New England and the Rocky Mountain West, the Orton Family Foundation is ready to share with you our field-tested method that leads to stronger towns. 

Our Field Guide, available as a free download, spells out step-by-step how to inspire residents to shape the future of their communities, based on what matters most to them.

We know it works. We’ve seen the results. Here are a few examples:

  • In Biddeford, Maine, Heart & Soul contributed to a solid community plan that sparked revitalization. In the past nine months, 144,000 square feet have been leased in a former mill, something that was expected to take two years. There are now 85 businesses in the mill complex. On Main Street, 19 new businesses have moved in in the past two years.
  • Cortez, Colorado has created trusting and productive relationships with community members. Kirsten Sackett, director of planning and building said, “They’re understanding more about what the city does. I’m understanding their needs more. … It’s not so much about process and paperwork anymore.”
  • When a controversial proposal to change how the town votes on its budget came up, the city council in Essex, Vermont turned to Heart & Soul of Essex to take the lead in organizing a community-wide conversation on the issue, moving it from conflict to consensus.

The Community Heart & Soul approach sets the stage for new leaders to emerge. Liz Subin, former coordinator of Essex Heart & Soul, decided to run for state legislature in Vermont. Golden, Colorado City Councilor Saoirse Charis-Graves never envisioned herself running for office until Heart & Soul helped her see how she could make a difference.

This is a small sample of the positive results that illustrate the transformative power of Community Heart & Soul. Maybe your town is next.

To learn more, please join us for a free Heart & Soul Matters talk, Community Heart & Soul: Building a Blueprint for Successful Small Towns from 4-5 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, Nov 5.  You’ll hear from me and Director of Programs Alece Montez-Griego with an overview of the approach. Heart & Soul veterans Mike Bestor, city manager, Golden, Colorado, and Delilah Poupore, executive director of Heart of Biddeford, will also be on hand to discuss how Heart & Soul has strengthened their towns. Click here to learn more and register.

Meantime, whether you are a city planner, elected official or a resident concerned about your town’s future, I hope you will take a moment to download the Field Guide and start the conversation about strengthening the social, cultural and economic vibrancy of your town.

David Leckey

Executive Director

Translating Values to Action in Gardiner, Maine

 
In Gardiner, Maine this summer residents may find themselves taking in free concerts on the waterfront, watching movies in a mini park or enjoying the flowers in public gardens.
 
These initiatives and seven others underway in this small city on the Kennebec River are a direct result of the Community Heart & Soul planning process that wrapped up earlier this year.
 
Gardiner wasted no time in moving from their shared community values to action with the awarding by the Foundation of $25,000 in Heart & Soul Implementation Grants that will leverage investment in the community valued at $400,000.
 
“We’ve been waiting for two years to get to this point. For me this is the reward for putting in the effort,” said Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, an organization that played a lead role in Gardiner Heart & Soul. 
 
Gardiner’s Action Plan reaches a broad range of community members, from businesses with a “Buy Local” campaign and business plan competition, to kids with an activity park, and teens with a prom gown service. Some Action Plan initiatives focus on benefits that will be enjoyed immediately like free concerts and movies. Others are longer range, including planning for a food cooperative and funding for the Duct Tape Council to make sure Gardiner stays on track with its Community Action Plan. 
 
“The wide range of projects is a result of going through Heart & Soul and inviting different community groups into the process, which is easy to say and not easy to do,” said Pat Hart, a city councilor and business owner who chairs the city’s Comprehensive Planning Committee. 
 
The results definitely bear testament to the hard work of Gardiner’s community members, said David Leckey, Orton's executive director.
 
“Helping communities find ways to take action around shared community values is why the Orton Family Foundation exists. We are thrilled to see this happening,” Leckey said.
 
Wright agreed.
 
“One of the things Heart & Soul has done is make the community believe in itself. The Implementation Grants are key because they have allowed us to identify projects that speak to the core of what moves this community forward. To see $25,000 go this far and wide with this number of projects is remarkable,” Wright said.
 
Here are the 10 Action Plan initiatives just awarded Heart & Soul Implementation Grants:
 
  • Cobbossee Corridor Design Charrette: Funding for an architectural design charrette for trails and building reuse along the Cobbossee Stream in conjunction with federal EPA Brownfields environmental assessment grant.  Implementation Grant: $6,000. Project cost: $40,000.
  • Gardiner Main Street (GMS) Growth Initiative: Funding for a business plan competition for start-ups that would not otherwise be eligible for funding as part of the GMS Growth Initiative. Implementation Grant: $5,000. Project cost $190,000.
  • Kennebec Local Food Initiative: For developing a downtown food co-op. Implementation Grant: $5,000. Project cost: $136,000.
  • Duct Tape Council: To ensure implementation of the Community Action Plan, pursue Gardiner’s community values, and ensure continuity of the Heart & Soul planning process. Implementation Grant: $2,000. Project cost: $4,000.
  • Outdoor Concerts: For five free concerts on the waterfront from May to September. Implementation Grant: $2,000. Project cost: $4,000.
  • Buy Local Campaign: To fund logo, signs, and website for campaign. Implementation Grant: $2,000. Project cost: $12,000.
  • Cinderella Project: To provide prom dresses to high school students who could not otherwise afford them. Implementation Grant: $1,000. Project cost: $3,540.
  • Outdoor Movies: For three free outdoor movies during the summer. Implementation Grant: $1,000. Project cost: $2,000.
  • Activity Park: Funding to begin planning for an activity park. Implementation Grant: $500. Project cost: $1,000.
  • Gardiner’s Gardeners: To provide materials to area merchants for downtown and public space beautification. Implementation Grant: $500. Project cost: $3,000.

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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Visioning Process Sparks Community Pride in One Town’s Youth

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.

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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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