When the Verso Paper Mill in Bucksport, Maine, closed its doors in 2014, it was a devastating blow to the small community of 5,000. Nestled alongside the Penobscot River on the way to Acadia National Park, Bucksport draws summer tourists, but up until December 2014, it was a paper mill town first and foremost. Bucksport lost 40 percent of its tax base with the closure of the mill.
It’s an all-too-familiar story in rural America — a small-town economy is left reeling when the dominant employer packs up and leaves — and often, the story doesn’t end well. But rather than accept this fate, Bucksport decided to write its own future. To help chart a new path forward, Bucksport engaged Community Heart and Soul, a nonprofit that has developed a resident-led process to build stronger small towns and cities.
“It’s too easy to focus on the negative, and too easy to focus on things that pull us apart. Instead, Heart and Soul brings people together,” Jane Lafleur, senior director of market development at Community Heart and Soul, said on the Rural Business Show. That’s why Bucksport chose the Heart and Soul process, she said, “Because it focuses on the positive, and it brings people together.”
Tapping into a community’s ‘heart and soul’
The idea for Community Heart and Soul began with Lyman Orton, the proprietor of the Vermont Country Store in Weston and Rockingham, Vermont. Orton created the nonprofit model to establish a better way for communities to gather input from the entire population, rather than a select few in local government. The process is entirely resident-driven and helps towns identify what matters most and how to shape their community around those values.
The four-phase Heart and Soul process has been deployed in nearly 100 communities over the last decade. It starts with identifying who is part of the community, gathering their stories and finding commonalities, to later help develop and implement an action plan based on those common values. The program helps grow new community leaders, revitalize downtowns, foster pride in local communities, and build trust, according to Lafleur.
“We find that trust is built in the community because, for the first time, people are talking to each other and listening to … stories from people across the town who they may have never listened to or thought they had anything in common with,” she said.
Finding common ground
One of the most important stages of the process is the story-gathering phase, in which local volunteers talk to residents and listen to their stories and ideas. The common values identified in these stories — the “Heart and Soul Statements” — help inform the next phases of the process. They become a north star for local decision makers, who can use the common values identified in the Heart and Soul Statements to better understand what really matters to all their constituents, not just those who attend town meetings or who make the most noise.
While community proposals can quickly become divisive, Lafleur stressed that finding common ground is easy. The resident interviews aren’t political in nature — they focus on what people love about their towns and what would make those towns a better place to live. People commonly care about the downtown area, local history, surrounding natural beauty and/or the safety of their community, for example.
“After you start listening to dozens and dozens of stories, it is very easy to find common things people care about,” Lafleur said.
Turning plans into action
The second half of the Heart and Soul process revolves around taking action. Volunteers compile community improvement ideas from the Heart and Soul Statements. No idea is too small — it can be anything from wanting to reduce litter to making an intersection safer to planting more flowers downtown. The ideas are prioritized by factors like impact, feasibility, cost and resources, and then put into an action plan. A stewardship team takes charge of this plan to ensure ideas are put into action.
“This is the part I love the most,” Lafleur said. “It’s not always the government that has to provide the work, or the solution, or the funding, because the volunteers that come up with these ideas, the citizens that come up with these ideas can also implement that action,” she said. The beauty of Heart and Soul is it puts community improvement in the hands of the community itself. Does a park need new picnic tables? Maybe a local club can help build and donate them. Even small improvements can make a big difference, and as a community begins to see their ideas come to life, it inspires further civic engagement.
Bucksport, Maine, has successfully reached the stewardship phase, according to Lafleur. Their stewards regularly update the action plan and report to the town council on the status of improvement projects, so the Heart and Soul method remains a living process.
“Heart and Soul is just the beginning of the town taking control of who they want to be and how they want people engaged,” Lafleur said. “We’re finding this has long-term, lasting effects because decision makers learn what community members want, and then they can shape their decisions based on what matters most to the community,” she said.
Community Heart and Soul regularly provides $10,000 seed grants to kickstart the Heart and Soul process in small towns and communities. To find out more about how to apply for a grant, visit communityheartandsoul.org.