Heart and Soul hosts ‘action summit’


Community gathers to strengthen values


By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter


Paul Dame works as a facilitator during last Wednesday’s Heart and Soul Action Summit in the Essex High School cafeteria. JASON STARR

Paul Dame works as a facilitator during last Wednesday’s Heart and Soul Action Summit in the Essex High School cafeteria.

One hundred fifty Essex residents gathered last Wednesday to celebrate ways the community already embodies its core values and identify steps to further incorporate them into local life.

The Heart and Soul of Essex visioning project, funded over two years by the Orton Family Foundation of Middlebury, culled six community values over the course of the past year: local economy, health and recreation, safety, education, thoughtful growth and community connections. Last Wednesday at Essex High School, Heart and Soul leaders held a community dinner, volunteer fair and “action summit” to collect and prioritize ideas for actions that can strengthen the values.

“We’re hoping to pair some of the new, excited energy with some of the things that are already going on,” said Heart and Soul committee member Kat Redniss.

Participants were first polled on which one of the values needs the most attention currently. Forty-three percent of those in attendance identified the thoughtful growth value. That was also the value that received the least favorable grade from participants, with 70 percent grading Essex’s current thoughtful growth performance a C, D or F.

After initial polling, participants then gathered in small groups with a specific topic or community issue to discuss with the goal of identifying short- and long-term actions people could take to improve the issue. Topics included diversity, local agriculture, unifying the Town of Essex and the Village of Essex Junction and affordable housing.

When participants reconvened in the auditorium, they shared the action ideas that rose to the top in their discussion groups. The plan then was to poll participants on the ideas and create a prioritized list of actions. But project co-coordinator Sue McCormack told the crowd that time constraints did not allow for final polling. Instead, McCormack shared some of the action ideas participants came up with. They included: combining municipal recreation departments, combining programs from the town’s two libraries, holding a quarterly community dinner, updating the Town Meeting Day format and building affordable housing.

Organizers plan to prioritize the entire list of action ideas and incorporate them into a final report on the Heart and Soul project due out by the end of the year. Redniss said the Orton Foundation offers smaller grants for communities to implement action ideas.

“I hope you are all leaving inspired to participate in your community in new ways,” Redniss said.