From the heart

Essex values arise out of community conversations

By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter


H&S2All of it — the $100,000 grant, the non-profit that was formed, the 200-person launch party, the ongoing group conversations, the sum of Essex’s Heart and Soul visioning project — is being distilled to a list of words.

Some of the words are: safety, history, neighborliness, health, creativity, independence and diversity. They represent the qualities of Essex that residents most value. And they form the foundation for what will become the Heart and Soul of Essex’s contribution to the community — a set of values and action plans to guide local governments’ and non-profit organizations’ planning into the future.

The Heart and Soul project kicked off earlier this year, a result of a successful Orton Family Foundation grant application. The Montpelier-based foundation has been interested in helping communities nationwide weather growth and changing demographics by staying true to their core values.

The Heart and Soul committee has been working to identify Essex’s core values through a series of group conversations. Organizers are attempting to reach every demographic, from Essex’s growing Bhutanese population to longtime residents, teens to seniors, military veterans to gay and transgender residents. They are also seeking geographically diverse input — input from residents of the Village of Essex Junction as well as suburban and rural Essex Town.

To date, about 165 residents have taken part in two-hour facilitated sit-downs where they have been asked about their experiences living in town and the values and resources they would like to see guide the town into the future. By the end of the winter, organizers hope to have included 350 residents in the process.

On Monday, a group of six 20-somethings met at Brownell Library to form the “young adult” conversation group. They all had graduated from Essex High School and were starting out in the working world. Facilitator and young adult librarian Kat Redniss asked them how they would describe Essex to someone who has never been here. She also asked them to relate a moment when they felt connected to the community, and to imagine what they would want to see in town if they left and returned after 20 years.

“A lot of you really believe in the resources already present in the community, but you want to see increased support for those resources,” Redniss said, summarizing the group’s responses.

The group was also given the list of 15 values that came out of the launch party in September and asked to rank them in order of importance — or add to them. The committee is asking all the conversation groups to do the same and plans to focus on the five to eight values that rise to the top. In February, the committee plans to publicize the top values identified throughout the course of the group conversations. For the young adult group, the top values turned out to be safety, education, creativity, community and open spaces.

As far as what they’d like to see in Essex in 20 years, the group identified job opportunities, affordability, public art and greater connection between the town and village. They also hoped the farmers’ market, support for schools and open spaces remain a strong part of Essex.

“I think it’s a great process,” said Stefan Deutsch, who participated in Monday’s session. “I love the fact that it is change from both the bottom up and the top down. I think it is a great idea and I’ll love to see what comes out of it.”

Members of the Essex Selectboard praised the effort during their meeting Monday after Heart and Soul co-coordinators Liz Subin and Sue McCormack updated the board on the project’s progress Monday. McCormack noted that more participation from Essex residents living outside the Village of Essex Junction is needed to balance input. A majority of group conversation participants have been village residents.

“I am impressed by all the things you’ve done,” selectboard chairwoman Linda Myers said.

“I like the way it’s progressing,” board member Max Levy concurred.

The Heart and Soul Conversation on Monday evening at the Brownell Library. Photo by Oliver Parini

The Heart and Soul Conversation on Monday evening at the Brownell Library. Photo by Oliver Parini