Future is now for Heart and Soul of Essex

Project peaks with Action Summit on Sept. 25

By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter

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heart-handshakeA two-year investigation into Essex’s community values will climax Sept. 25 as residents gather to identify the actions that will embed those values into the fabric of the community.

A year to the day after the grant-funded “Heart and Soul of Essex” project engaged the public with a launch party at the Champlain Valley Exposition, organizers will again host a community gathering, this time at Essex High School and geared toward prioritizing the actions that will make the biggest impact on the community.

“There are always more ideas than there are resources to get them done,” explained Heart and Soul co-coordinator Susan McCormack, “so it can really help a community when they decide ‘what are the things we really want to see done.’”

Essex’s government and non-profit leaders will attend “to make sure their hard work is well-aligned with the things that are important to the community,” McCormack said.

The Heart and Soul of Essex project began with a committee of about 20 residents who worked to obtain a $100,000 community planning grant through Middlebury’s Orton Family Foundation. The foundation’s Heart and Soul grants are awarded to communities seeking out common values and envisioning ways to put the values into practice. Orton representatives visited Essex in November 2011 and awarded the grant two months later.

The committee has held together over the planning and execution of the project, incorporating as a non-profit and continuing to meet monthly. With the grant set to expire in January and a comprehensive report due out by the end of the year covering the process and its outcomes, the committee will have a few options if members wish it to remain civically active.

“It is really up in the air, which is part of the excitement of this project,” said committee chairman Brad Luck. “It’s much like the rest of the process in that it is amorphous. We are waiting to hear what community members want before we make those decisions.”

The committee’s October meeting will be used to review the outcomes of the Sept. 25 summit. Members will also discuss whether the committee will continue on in its current form, shift focus, break into smaller groups to help strengthen existing local committees or organizations, or disband.

“We are going to stay together for only as long as we need to support whatever the outcomes of the project will be,” Luck said.

Those outcomes should be clearer by the end of the September forum. The event will begin with a community dinner and volunteer fair, where participants can get a sense of existing organizations that serve the community’s values. A presentation will follow focusing on the values the community identified over the two-year investigation. After that, the action summit will continue with a series of small group “meetups” where participants will discuss action ideas that have been identified and filtered in the last few months and prioritize the most impactful. The entire group will reconvene at the end with what organizers hope is a clear idea of actions to take to strengthen the community’s values.

No matter the outcome, good has already come from the process, McCormack said. Through pop-up coffeeshops, a community survey, neighborhood gatherings and a presence at community events, Heart and Soul has increased civic engagement and neighborliness.

“We’ve had the opportunity to do something important,” McCormack said. “It was a combination of fun things and in-depth things that really helped people be thoughtful about the community.”

Elected officials and municipal leaders from the Village of Essex Junction and the Town of Essex have increased joint conversations through the Heart and Soul process. The two municipalities merged their top managerial position while Heart and Soul was active.

“I think we’ve really fostered a lot of connections between the town and village and set the stage for better collaboration,” McCormack said.