Starksboro, Vermont is working to balance a growing population with a rural lifestyle. The Art & Soul project used storytelling and a series of community arts projects to engage citizens and identify common values that can guide planning decisions.
Starksboro, Vermont feels the strain of integrating newcomers and old-timers, population growth and a rural lifestyle, rising real-estate prices and limited economic opportunities. While Starksboro still boasts a largely rural landscape, the Town is experiencing significant growth pressures from nearby urban centers.
The Orton Family Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust (VLT) hypothesized that, by getting in touch with deep community values and connections to place, citizens could improve on traditional planning approaches and make better decisions about the future of their town. With help from other non-profit organizations, the Foundation and VLT developed an Art & Soul Civic Engagement initiative, which uses the arts to involve citizens in shaping their own future and translating shared values into actions. The Art & Soul initiative used a variety of tools to engage residents in storytelling, art, conversation and action.
Starksboro leaders understand that broad citizen engagement is essential to nurturing and planning for the future of a healthy community. The Art & Soul Civic Engagement initiative helps Starksboro begin to identify and protect its “heart and soul" through three phases:
First, A Middlebury College class led by Professor John Elder spent three months collecting the stories of town residents. Among the 50 townspeople interviewed were elders, youth, landowners, farmers, town officials and local historians. The storytelling phase culminated with a town-wide community supper and celebration attended by about 250 people, at which the Middlebury College students shared their final edited stories. and distributed a book of Starksboro Stories to every family attending.
Second, Matthew Perry of the Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington, Vermont was selected to serve as the Artist-in-Residence. Perry worked in the community for nine months helping residents turn some of the community stories into works of art that celebrate life in Starksboro and provoke discussion about what should be preserved or changed. Throughout the process, Starksboro hosted celebrations to showcase the artworks, facilitate conversations and help flesh out the community’s beliefs and aspirations.
In the final phase, the project will promote and institutionalize a community vision that emerges from stories and art. Townspeople will identify ways to reflect their shared values in concrete actions, policies and choices shaping the future of their community and its land use.