Cornerstones Blog

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:


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. 


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.


5 Lessons for Engaging the Hard to Reach from Colorado’s North Fork Valley

Despite its small-town feel, affiliations with local industries sharply divide social life in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. Coal miners feel their jobs are under attack by national and local shifts in energy policy. “Hippies” (environmentalists, artists, and newcomers, in the vernacular) and miners sometimes disagree when it comes to local mines. Artists are rarely recognized as contributors to the local economy. People have a hard time just getting along, and they aren’t afraid to say it.

Given the underlying tensions, it’s no surprise that residents of the three valley towns, Crawford, Hotchkiss and Paonia, rarely see eye-to-eye when it comes to decisions about the future of their region. Times of economic instability make consensus more difficult to achieve, as the need to protect livelihoods eclipses other issues. In fact, many people in the North Fork Valley abstain from formal civic engagement altogether. Perhaps they doubt their voice will be heard. Maybe they’re skeptical of how decisions are made, or how community power is distributed. No matter the reasons, they are hard to reach.

To build community across such divides and engage hard-to-reach folks in community engagement and visioning, the Heart & Soul team initiated three storytelling projects. Keep reading to learn more about the projects, along with five lessons we’ve distilled from their efforts to help you engage the hard to reach in your own city or town.


Top Ten Tips for Inclusive Engagement

So, why is inclusive engagement so important to our Heart & Soul Community process?

Broad—and deep—engagement with community members is a fundament building block of a successful Heart & Soul Community Planning project. We’ve worked hard to advance authentic engagement because it makes all the difference to building stronger communities; it is a means to an end in our work, and it is also an end in itself for the trust it builds, the ideas it sparks, and the new connections it creates.


The 21st Century Melting Pot

This post by Brent Bjorkman originally appeared on the Mindmixer blog at The Foundation is delighted to share the story of this partnership between Mindmixer and Heart & Soul Cortez. Together, they're working to ensure the whole community has a say in the city's future.


The use of the uniquely American term melting pot has been traced back as early as the 1780s to describe the meshing of cultures in the United States. But the images conjured up in my mind when I hear “melting pot” are from a scene 100 years later: Ellis Island.

My mental picture is that of young Vito Andolini (soon to be Vito Corleone) in the opening sequence of “The Godfather: Part II.” You know the scene: a crowded immigration station with a multitude of languages bouncing off stonewalls. Long lines of Europeans patiently waiting to make their mark in the New World, still emboldened by the welcome they received from the Statue of Liberty. That image may be appropriate, but only for a small point in time, given that it was open for less than 60 years. The image of the American melting pot in today’s world can be found throughout the U.S., far away from Ellis Island.


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.


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.