Heart & Soul

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.


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).


Slow Democracy: Power – Do We Talk About It In Polite Company?

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).

Power-O-MeterSome 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.


Slow Democracy: Deliberation – More Than Just Talk

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.


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.


Slow Democracy: Inclusion Takes Creativity

This is the second 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).

A great example of “outside-the-box” thinking actually comes in a box.

In Essex, Vermont, “Essex Heart & Soul” is working to engage the community in dialogue about the future.

Rather than beg busy residents to attend yet another 7 p.m. meeting, leaders brought the conversation to living rooms and other gathering places across the community with—you guessed it—a “Meeting in a Box.”

It’s an actual box full of printed materials: a discussion guide, priority-setting tools, clipboards, nametags, and more.


Heart & Soul Principle 3: Build Community

This is the third 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.

Principle 3. Build Community—Build trust, seek common ground and encourage civil dialogue. Strive for a community where people listen to each other, understand each other, and embrace differences.

As Damariscotta, Maine’s Heart & Soul project was getting underway back in 2008, native Buzz Pinkham was invited to an event aimed at gathering community feedback on shaping the future of his town.

“When I was originally asked to be part of the process,” says Buzz, “I gave the regular native answer: ‘I don’t have time for that.’”

“Then I got a thing in the mail and it had all the names of people who did have time, and a lot of those people I didn’t recognize. I said, ‘There aren’t any natives in there…and these people are going to decide the future of this town? I can’t have that.’ And so I went to the next meeting.”


Community as Classroom: Learning Through Service in Victor, Idaho

Guest blogger Hannah Orcutt is a former Orton intern now based in the Teton Valley. She recently got in touch to let us know that the impacts of the Heart & Soul approach are still making a difference in Victor.

Victor, Idaho (pop. 1,500), one of the Foundation’s early Heart & Soul project towns, is home to the Teton Valley Community School (TVCS), where I currently work.  A central tenet of the school’s philosophy is that community involvement is important.

The Victor community serves as a dynamic classroom for our Pre-K through 6th-grade students. TVCS’s unique project-based curriculum lets teachers harness regional expertise and events as learning tools. The community benefits from our projects, and students learn to be engaged citizens.

It’s a win-win that has resulted in a young generation of active movers and shakers in the Teton Valley.