Heart, Soul and Courage in Essex

“Villages,” “towns,” “cities” – the boundaries between them are just lines on a map to most of us. In Chittenden County, Vermont., for instance, most shoppers and commuters don’t even notice as they cross from the “Town” of Essex to the “Village” of Essex.

The story is different, however, for those who keep these two distinct but overlapping municipalities running. Leaders have long struggled with how best to coordinate the governing boards, volunteer committees and local services of Essex Town and Essex Village. Old habits die hard, especially if they’re a couple of hundred years old. The two municipalities have long debated whether to merge, separate, or find better ways to collaborate (the most recent, contentious vote was in 2005) -- but no resolution has been found in over 50 years of tension. And ultimately, many argue, the lack of a shared vision may have caused missed opportunities.

Meanwhile, Essex is growing; indeed, as home to about 20,000, Essex Town and Village comprise the second largest community in Vermont. In addition, demographic changes, with a diversity of new Americans finding homes here, add to the complexity. Clearly, it’s time for a new way to talk.

Starting this month, area residents are ready to try exactly that. With help from the Orton Family Foundation, Essex is launching a two-year, citizen-based initiative to celebrate their history, identify common values, and search for a unified vision. They’re calling it “Heart and Soul” planning.

Essex is not alone. It is one of the hundreds if not thousands of communities in the past decade to take on complex issues with new tools that fit under the umbrella of “dialogue and deliberation.” They range from Portsmouth, N.H., where a ten-year stalemate over school redistricting was solved by citizens; to downtown Chicago, where neighborhood deliberations helped alleviate crime; to eight council districts in New York City, where citizens are actually creating the budgets for local parks and open space.

Each of these communities is using a 21st century, breakthrough recipe: neighborhood conversations and community-wide deliberation processes, aided by citizen-powered research and communication. Through the slow and inclusive process of listening, identifying values, weighing trade-offs among a full range of options, and linking their discussions to real action, communities are finding sustainable solutions to problems that many had thought were beyond resolution.

The process is neither liberal nor conservative; in fact, it would be a stretch to call it political at all. Here, we can leave behind polarizing left-right labels so prevalent in national politics, and look at real-world solutions to real-world problems, right here at home. There is no pre-ordained answer; this is an open invitation for neighborly conversation, with all ideas welcome.

It won’t be easy or quick – Essex is launching on real, slow democracy. But, although “Heart and Soul” planning may sound idealistic, the truth is more down-to-earth. Communities are using these strategies because they work.

And there’s an added bonus: researchers have found that when we are involved in people-powered deliberations, both citizenship and communities can be strengthened in unexpected ways.

• People who have participated in deliberations often go on to increase their community engagement – increase voting rates, volunteering, and interest in the news and community issues.

• Deliberation can strengthen our sense of community and respect, helping us look beyond stereotypes and reducing problems of marginalization.

• We all know that in this age of sound bites and position statements, an open mind can be hard to find. But studies show that deliberation can make us more open to new information – allowing new solutions to emerge.

• Long after the issue of the day is resolved, deliberation can have lasting effects, improving people’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and solve future problems.

There’s another bonus: many researchers have noticed a link between citizen involvement and the local economy. A 2011 report by the National Conference on Citizenship reported a correlation between citizen engagement and community resilience against unemployment. Researchers posit that the link may be due to multiple factors, including:

• transferable skills (developing leadership and deliberation skills is valuable in the workplace);

• improved information flow;

• enhanced social networking (we hire people we know);

• increased interpersonal trust (trust is critical to business associations and investing);

• higher performing democracy (active citizens demand and support excellence in governance).

Essex is launching on this project to move beyond long-standing, troublesome issues. But with the help of the heart, soul and courage of village and town residents, the community’s efforts will pay dividends. Essex will not only create a clearer vision, but a stronger, more sustainable community.

This piece first appeared as an op-ed in the Essex (Vt.) Reporter on October, 4, 2012.