Community Does Matter

By:Rebecca Saltman Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Community

Denver’s Approach to Prosperity

Victor Emporium For most of human history, we’ve been on a singular quest to get bigger, better, richer, faster. We’ve developed tools and factories and products and cities that make our lives simultaneously easier and more efficient. We’ve specialized our knowledge base into skill sets, and compartmentalized our skill sets into jobs, allowing people to achieve far-reaching results with limited resources. And as a people, we’ve been incredibly successful.

But all good things must come to an end. Despite the best efforts of everyone from the White House to your house, we are dealing with a host of new challenges: disappearing incomes, rising pollution levels, collapsing businesses, rampant unplanned development, and ultimately, a dramatic disconnect from families, friends, and neighbors. These concerns are all a shared burden, as is our desire to build healthier, more vibrant communities that can combat these seemingly intractable ills.

Fulfilling this desire will take a fundamental shift in leadership, civic engagement, governance, and planning – a shift that can survive the onslaught of 21st century economic realities. This shift needs to ensure that all community members are informed, connected, and ready to repeatedly turn challenge into opportunity. Communities, businesses and governments across the country are currently waking up to the fact that their old tool kits are no longer working. The individuals they govern have already “smelled the coffee” on this front and are driving to Starbucks! Chip Heath Keynote CommunityMatters (CM), an initiative of the Orton Family Foundation, is ready to take the lead by providing the tools, models and inspiration to act. This coalition of community leaders, thinkers and doers forms a “commons,” wherein people can find resources, get and give advice, and share stories of community action. CM does not advocate for any specific actions or policy changes, but seeks to empower people to become community leaders, to find creative local solutions to community problems, and to break down the boundaries between disciplines and organizations to forge a collaborative approach to creating enduring change at the community level. “We believe in the power of the individual, and collaborative leadership in the community starts with local citizens. Elected officials typically follow more than they lead, so leadership needs to come from the grassroots,” says Bill Roper, President and CEO of the Orton Family Foundation.

“As political gridlock and the economic downturn continue month after month, citizens are perhaps newly ready to find a different way forward – one that emphasizes community over consumerism, collaboration over individualism, responsibility over apathy, local action over national or state control.” The Foundation created the CommunityMatters Initiative to make a space for collaboration and sharing between varied organizations, and to facilitate local leadership that can address big problems. Still in its infancy, CommunityMatters is actively seeking input, partners, and ideas to help grow this vibrant network, which in turn will help grow dynamic communities across the country.

CommunityMatters held their third national conference (CM’10) recently in Denver, Colorado to highlight the importance of diverse voices and coalitions in pursuing the “heart and soul” of each attendee’s hometown. CM’10 gathered 250 people – a diverse interdisciplinary crowd from 35 states plus D.C. and Canada - to forge a collaborative approach to creating enduring change at the community level. The breakdown was as varied as the stories they told: 18 percent from city/town governments, 9 percent from community initiatives, 7 percent from the requisite state and federal agencies, 26 percent from NGOs, and another 10 percent from sundry universities and research affiliates. Maine resident Jane Lafleur said, “The conference did wonders for me. My brain feels nourished again after a long drought! It feels great to have met so many talented, inspiring people. Loved it all!”

Previous and ongoing projects were singled out and analyzed during CM’10, as both teaching tools and inspirational guides. A tour through the city of Golden, Colorado provided one such showcase opportunity. CommunityMatters, collaborating with the Orton Family Foundation’s Heart & Soul Community Planning and others, developed a supplemental code, policy and capital improvement plan to achieve a “Golden Vision 2030.” Golden Vision 2030 is using new tools that were emphasized at CM’10 and can help to make citizens’ interactions with government a two-way street such as: CommunityViz, a GIS-based visualization and modeling software; AnyWare Polling, a mobile phone-based polling platform that allows people to instantly respond to survey questions; Community Almanac, a website that allows people to map and share stories and multimedia about their communities; and other online engagement and social networking applications.

The four days of speakers, learning sessions and discussions included many events and demonstrations that proved how interdisciplinary thinking and tools help enhance community. Portland-based civic theater company Sojourn Theatre engaged attendees and synthesized their words and thoughts into a rousing closing performance. Attendees listened to and helped select the winners of the Strong Communities Competition, a partnership between Ashoka’s Changemakers and CommunityMatters that sought to identify and recognize the most innovative community building projects in the U.S. and Canada. New York Times bestselling author Chip Heath (Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard), addressed the necessity of directing, motivating and “shaping the path.” Famed author of Diet for a Small Planet and closing keynote, Frances Moore Lappé, said it this way, “The challenge is increasing and deepening trust by engaging directly with others to create culture that works for all of us.”

The conference program was a microcosm of one of CommunityMatters’ guiding principles: address citizens’ growing hunger to go deeper in a shallow world. CM asserts that people are disenchanted with the cookie-cutter towns of disconnected communities, placeless streets and ineffective governments. But communities have yet to engage a broad base of local citizens to help them define and shape their futures. Traditional quantitative approaches to planning and community development use critical data about demographic and economic shifts, traffic counts and infrastructure needs, but fail to account for the particular ways people relate to their physical surroundings and ignore or discount the intangibles—shared values, beliefs and quirky customs—that make a community. “Experts” often look on local participation as an albatross at best, or a protest movement at worst, rather than respecting the expertise of the people who know a community most thoroughly—its residents. In its mission, the Orton Family Foundation states, “Every town has authenticity, character, spirit—its own heart and soul."

"One-size-fits-all development means that many towns in America are losing what makes them unique, those special qualities and distinctive characteristics that keep a place from becoming Anywhere, USA.”

People are trying to address issues like poverty, education, growth and sprawl in silos, when in reality they are utterly intertwined. This deliberative democracy, this collective wisdom, can have the most innocuous beginnings. In October, 2009, Victor, Idaho (population roughly 1,000) filled the historic theater, for a first-ever citywide “storytelling event.” Over 90 locals turned out to hear three longtime residents tell stories about what they found special about Victor. They came to enjoy digital stories made from interviews with residents (thanks to the diligent efforts of the local Boy Scout troop), young and old, from all points of the community compass. The event led to volunteers signing on to participate in Envision Victor’s Heart & Soul Initiative and the inception of the first Victor Wave Day, a practice recalled by one of the storytellers that used to be common years before. These small outcomes, focused as much on fun as future planning, boosted community spirit and energy for collective action.

That spirit action will be tested in the coming fiscal quarters. Rampant population growth (driven largely by national press transforming the nearby county seat of Driggs, Idaho into a tourist mecca) has led to subdivision developers and “big box” interests appearing overnight. Victor approved a Traditional Neighborhood District overlay zone in 2008 with the intent of fostering elements that many Victor residents want: bikeable streets, affordable homes, cultural events and close-knit neighborhoods. Innovative development is already springing up in the form of Mountainside Village, a mixed-use residential community that is a registered pilot neighborhood for LEED certification. City officials hope that Envision Victor will help the entire city develop and realize a shared vision for a lively, livable community.

This unique approach is the natural offshoot of Orton Family Foundation’s founder, Lyman Orton. Originally envisioned in 1995, the Foundation was founded to get small cities and towns to shape their future by collaboratively defining, articulating and acting on those elements that make them unique and distinctive. These shared values are placed at the center of the planning process. As succinctly phrased by Ed McMahon, Trustee of the Orton Family Foundation, “Do you want the character of your community to define development, or do you want outside development to define the character of your community?”

Lyman Orton grew up in the picturesque hill town of Weston, Vermont. He learned to ski in the late 1940’s on a rope-tow hill on one side of his house, attending the two-room school on the other, and being pretty much a free-range kid along with all his friends. His father and mother – literal pioneers in the mail order industry – started The Vermont County Store in 1946. He clearly had a knack for being a merchant; The Vermont County Store is now a major employer in Vermont and serves customers across America through its mail order catalogue, website, and two stores.

In the 1980s, Vermont experienced a building boom fueled in part by a rapid rise in second-home ownership. Many towns throughout the state, including Weston, found themselves unprepared and lacking the information and tools needed to protect their character while continuing to grow and change in positive directions. Orton remembers struggling with a proposal in Weston to build a wildlife theme park on the side of a local mountain, which the Planning Commission discovered was permitted under current zoning bylaws, and which the Commission was powerless to prevent. Again, it was a case of failing to engage a broad base of local citizens to help them define and shape the future of their communities.

While most places have never faced as much change and as many challenges as they do today, there has also never been a better opportunity for citizens to take charge of their future. Our communities are becoming more diverse by the day, which means an influx of new perspectives and new types of knowledge. It is both more and less than the typical voting and volunteerism – we need every citizen to become a leader in some way, to recognize the opportunity cloaked as challenge. CommunityMatters and the Orton Family Foundation are finding those opportunities more and more, daily.

Are you?

Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the President and Founder of an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, nonprofits and academia.