I certainly did not picture myself working with an organization called Community Heart & Soul. I named my business Revitalize, or Die. after all, so I tend towards the surly end of things. I speak from the heart and off the cuff and tend to put some people off. When I first heard the name Community Heart & Soul, I thought it was some sort of church and I try to avoid those. But an old friend and colleague from the Main Street world kept talking to me about her work with the organization and eventually, like she always does, wore me down.
I was leery at first, and second and third. I hear a lot of ideas thrown around about how to save rural America. Most aren’t so good. Most miss the mark by a mile. I’ve worked on a lot of plans and I’ve been involved with a slew of grant programs over the course of my career. All well-intended, all fell flat. All aimed to repair what’s wrong, none of them knew what was wrong.
I sat in on a couple of Community Heart & Soul meetings, I read about the program, I tried giving it a shot. To be honest- it wasn’t doing it for me. I couldn’t seem to figure out what their process was all about. I had made up my mind, and as persuasive as my friend Leanne can be, this just wasn’t going to be a fit for me. Then I heard a story.
As Meadville, Pennsylvania was going through the Heart & Soul process, the residents leading the efforts kept hearing people say, “We need a place to feel like a community”. When the residents spoke about their town, time and time again, they would mention how hard it was to feel like a community when there wasn’t a place for the community to convene. This issue came up so often that it eventually became part of their Heart & Soul plan. As local efforts moved forward, it become obvious that the modern-day Town Hall, the gathering place everyone needed, was as simple as a coffeeshop- that’s what was missing.
This is the part that grabbed me. Unlike most other efforts, it didn’t stop at a plan, action was required. Meadville needed a place to hang out, a place to get together, a place to be with one another. Meadville needed a coffeeshop. One of the central tenets of Community Heart & Soul is connecting everyone in town by creating a communication plan. As the team actively broadcasted the plan to land a coffeeshop, a little bit of lightening struck.
A local guy had dreamed of opening a coffeeshop downtown, but didn’t know how to get started. As you can imagine, launching a small business is daunting, especially if you have no idea if the community will support it. This is the beauty of the Heart & Soul approach. In being resident driven, in being open, and in being communicative- supply and demand had the chance to meet. They started dating. They now have a mortgage and three kids.
As the desires of the community were articulated and communicated, the ability to meet those desires became possible. A crowdfunding program was launched and the town of Meadville raised $10,000 to get the new coffeeshop up and running. The community now has a place to meet, and Meadville has a new local business owner living his dream. This is how it should be. How many of these simple connections are missed every year because we don’t have the proper tools? How often do chance and opportunity pass one another in the night because no one in town is talking? How many perfect opportunities are overlooked because no one thought to say them out loud?
In Meadville, the Community Heart & Soul program went beyond planning and beyond funding and beyond talk. The team identified issues and went to work on solving them- and in doing so, reminded people that change is possible. That civic progress isn’t fictional and that residents matter. Momentum was born and civic self-esteem retuned from its long, long hiatus.
I talk a lot about apathy and how our cities do such an impeccable job of fostering it. I think a lot about how our towns marginalize residents and make them feel unappreciated. I worry a lot about raising another generation with no sense of civic duty. I never expected to partner with Community Heart & Soul, but as I learned over an unexpected phone call with the founder, Lyman Orton, our passions are aligned. Our values the same. Our desire to make a difference is shared. I understood why Community Heart & Soul exists and why this individual is relieving himself of his fortune to help small towns. As it turns out, Community Heart & Soul and Revitalize, or Die. aren’t all that different. The language we use certainly varies, but they objective is the same.
The Heart & Soul program is successful because of this crazy idea of placing residents in charge. Not just resident input (please place your sticky note on the picture that makes you feel special) but resident driven. Having locals guide the process provides a desperately needed sense of ownership and empowerment.
I am in the midst of witnessing the process and it is, in fact, really fucking cool. It’s different, it feels a little funny inside, it’s fascinating… and I am into it. The process of determining what will go into a plan is derived from what people talk about. Instead of just asking people to put up their sticky notes, we ask what matters, what they care about and what they want to see. It’s about digging deeper, about listening and caring, about giving people’s voices some weight. As part of the Community Heart & Soul process, we ask people to tell us their story.
Stories give us our sense of identity. They remind us who we are and where we come from. We all want to hear stories of our ancestors because it makes us proud to know our connection to great people. Sharing stories of our cities can have the same effect. No one is proud of their Dick’s Sporting Goods. No one gets excited to hear about the time the industrial park was built. Those developments only increased peoples sense of civic malaise. But to hear about the time the community banded together to help one another during the storm, or when everyone went on strike to stick-it to ‘the Man’. Those are the stories that matter- those are the ones that make people proud and start to give some shape to our civic identity. Those are the tales that need told.
Stories are central to our civic identity and as the shared stories of our communities have faded into oblivion, our own identities have suffered the same fate. We desperately need that identity right now. We need to remember what’s special about our place, because that helps remind us what’s special about us. It also helps to remind us why our places are worth defending, why they are worth fighting for and why current efforts are impotent at best.
We can’t continue to stand by and let our hometowns succumb to such fates. No matter what a community leaders intentions are, if they are not doing everything they can to lift locals up and make them feel special, to give them something to be proud of and provide them a town that will make them feel dignified, they need to take note or take off.
It’s not simply a planning process, but a doing mechanism. The big consultant plans have become a culprit in the apathy battle as it gives officials the ability to say they’re doing something without actually doing anything. Without implementation, plans are poorly shaped door stops.
Too many communities are in a position where planning is not the solution. The problems are deeper, more rudimentary, more internal. Planning won’t fix those issues alone, but “doing” will. Effort is the enemy of apathy. Action is sometimes all you need. We can’t talk to a depressed person about a marathon, we have to start by helping them get out of bed, then walking around the block. In placing a premium on action and focusing on getting efforts underway, we can see a community re-teach itself how progress works. We can help them understand firsthand how easy it can be to make a change and how quickly momentum can swing.
You may approach the problem softly, you may use nice words and you may be patient. You might be brash, foul-mouthed and confrontational. It doesn’t matter how you approach it, what matters is you do something. You can put your Heart & Soul into the fight AND you can give a damn! Action is the secret ingredient and we’ve got to remind ourselves that we don’t have to wait to make improvements. We don’t need permission to get better. We can fight apathy every damn day. We have a say in what happens in our places. We have a right to demand better, we have an obligation to want more. Every time we step outside our front door, we should take that opportunity to wage a war on apathy and to turn the tide. To push back against the forces that would have us not care. To stop listening when they tell us to wait. To ignore them when they say it needs a committee. No one needs a committee to clean up an empty lot, we don’t have to seek out permission to throw a party in the street. Sometimes we just gotta take the first step and see who starts marching with us.