Art & Soul Civic Engagement

  • Featured Story

    Watch Segments 1-6 of Art & Soul Phase Two: From Stories to Art, featuring Artist-in-Residence Matthew Perry, filmed by Mary Arbuckle.


    Segment 1

    Segment 2

    Segment 3

    Segment 4

    Segment 5

    Segment 6

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  • Project At A Glance

    LocationStarksboro, Vermont
    Population1,898 (2,000 census)
    Area45.5 square miles (117.9 square kilometers)
    Project Partners

    Town of Starksboro

    Vermont Land Trust

    Project Duration2008-2009
    Focus AreasAgriculture, conservation, community development, environment/natural resources land use
    MethodsCommunity Almanac, digital storytelling, Front Porch Forum, mapping, publications, video, web tools
    ToolsArts, dialogue, storytelling, youth engagement
    Coordinator Contact

    Caitlin Cusack
    ccusack [@] starksboroartnsoul [.] org

    Project WebsiteStarksboro Art & Soul Website
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Launch Project Slideshow

Art & Soul Civic Engagement Starksboro, Vermont

At first glance, Starksboro is a bucolic village nestled comfortably between the Green Mountains and the Champlain Valley—an advertisement for rural Vermont living. But a closer look reveals that, like many small towns, it’s sagging under the strain of integrating newcomers and old-timers, commuters and farmers, growth and a rural lifestyle, rising real estate prices and limited economic opportunities. In an effort to weave the community fabric together and adapt to changing times, Starksboro turned to the arts as a catalyst to involve the community in creating a vision for its future.

Through digital storytelling, artistic collaboration and community events, townspeople immersed themselves in discussions about why they value Starksboro and what issues they face. They emerged with defined actions to help address the Town’s divides.


Starksboro is the quintessential Vermont town: eight working farms, 20 maple sugar producers, a cooperative preschool and 30 volunteer organizations, all in a town of 2,000 people. While it still boasts a largely rural landscape, Starksboro is experiencing significant growth pressures from nearby cities.

Proposals for zoning policies in the 1980s were defeated, despite rapid growth. In the 1990s, the Planning Commission hosted community forums to engage citizens in the process; town zoning passed on the next vote. Subsequently, the forums became an annual event, creating a ‘culture of planning’ in Starksboro. In recent years, however, their frequency had declined.

Inspiration for Starksboro’s participation in the Art & Soul Project came from an unlikely source: the local elementary school. Robinson Elementary received a Comprehensive School Reform grant through the Department of Education to help students strengthen their learning by integrating the arts into teaching methods. As a result, Robinson has witnessed greater participation, enthusiasm and engagement among students and their families—successes that were recognized with a National School of Excellence award.

Art & Soul was an opportunity to continue this innovative work in the school and also apply it to the community as the Town faced updating its Town Plan.


Although initially hesitant, it didn’t take long for Starksboro’s residents to throw themselves behind Art & Soul. More than 250 people attended the culmination of the storytelling phase of the project, a community dinner where Middlebury College students presented their multimedia profiles of Starksboro residents and the surrounding landscape based on 50 community interviews.

During artist Matthew Perry’s 9-month residency, hundreds of citizens participated in art projects ranging from Slow, Children road sign design (artwork courtesy of the children themselves) to cross-generational collage and sculpture. The local artists who participated in Art & Soul continue to stay engaged in school programs, community projects and weekly landscape painting nights for residents. Storytelling has also gained purchase in town; the local schools have purchased recording and editing equipment, which will allow students, teachers and families to continue collaborating on community stories.

Great progress has been made on a network of walking trails through the village corridor, which is a direct outcome of the values articulation process. A group of dedicated volunteers, including many Robinson School students, have put countless hours into making Starksboro safe and walkable for all ages.

The Art & Soul project highlighted the need to invest in “gathering spaces” in the community. The Jerusalem Schoolhouse has begun upgrades to their historic structure, and fundraising is underway to replace the steeple on the Old Meeting House.

In February 2009, a moderated online forum called Front Porch Forum (FPF) was launched in Starksboro as a part of the Art & Soul project. The Foundation used the opportunity to test this community-building tool in a Heart & Soul process. Within three months, over 200 households (out of 670 total) had subscribed to the online forum (for a 30 percent “take rate”).

Twelve months later, almost 50 percent of Starksboro households subscribe to FPF, and have shared nearly 1,000 postings. Over 75 percent of the Starksboro participants are responsible for the FPF content, compared to 10 percent for typical web 2.0 services.


Starksboro, VTThe Town of Starksboro (population 2,000) is located in Addison County, Vermont. It is governed by a Select Board, which serves as the main legislative body for the Town.


Vermont Land TrustThe Vermont Land Trust (VLT) is a statewide, member-supported, nonprofit land conservation organization. Since 1977, VLT has permanently conserved more than 470,000 acres, including more than 630 working farms, hundreds of thousands of acres of productive forestland and numerous parcels of community lands. VLT services include the following: legal, technical, mapping, stewardship and financial support to communities, local and regional land trusts, and state agencies to help them achieve their conservation priorities.