Moving through the Vestry building at the Charlotte Congregational Church required a good bit of do-si-doing. The room was filled with adults talking and children weaving in and out of a forest of grown-up legs.
A table next to the kitchen was filled with a cornucopia of chili and cornbread choices; a pair of easels with large note boards stood at the ready with an array of markers; the Mansfield Mountain Band was performing a creative assortment of well-loved tunes; and the room was filled with the buzz and bustle of people conversing — and connecting.
Community Heart & Soul got off to a rousing start in Charlotte last Friday evening, Jan. 20.
The program which involves a town committing to a series of meetings to work on community engagement almost got off to a too-rousing start.
Members of the planning commission Robert Bloch and Kyra Wegman have been spearheading the effort to bring Community Heart & Soul to Charlotte. Last week, Bloch sent emails to people who had RSVP’d, asking if they would attend a second kickoff event this coming Friday, Jan. 27. More than 100 had signed up, more than the recommended COVID limit for the Vestry building.
More than 50 agreed to attend the second event, but still the Vestry was filled for the initial event. This Friday’s event will be at the Charlotte Senior Center with the same program and chili.
Mark Sherman, the executive director of Shelburne-based Community Heart & Soul, has lived in Charlotte since 2010. He has overseen the program in at least 24 states and more than 100 communities from Maine to Florida to the Pacific Northwest.
“For a little town of 4,000 people, for 100 people to say they want to attend — that’s a great problem. It’s a really good sign,” Sherman said. “We’ll usually see 20-30 people at the initial kickoff, so to me, that suggests there’s a lot of pent-up demand for this kind of engagement.”
Earlier, Sherman had told the newspaper that Community Heart & Soul doesn’t come with any political, social or religious agenda, but is a framework to help a community figure out what residents feel is most important.
The usually two-year Community Heart & Soul process involves community residents identifying a goal they want to work on together.
After most of the crowd had eaten, Wegman told the crowd she was inspired when she heard of Community Heart & Soul by the idea of diverse individuals working as a community to address issues and create a positive change.
“Community engagement creates better understanding of community issues and goals, creates connections, influences decision making and creates more effective and sustainable solutions,” Wegman said.
If Charlotte decides to sign on to the Community Heart & Soul program, Trish Sears and Steve Mason of Lowell will be working as coaches for the process.
Mason said they were introduced to the program in Newport and were so impressed that they trained as coaches.
The process is about more than community involvement; it’s also about inclusion because they work very hard to get the ideas of people who don’t show up for events, but who do have ideas.
“The real secret is in this room. It’s at these tables. It’s everybody working together,” Mason said.
Although “everybody working together” may be an overused phrase, he said, team spirit can have a big impact when a town discovers it.
As the group divided up into tables, people were encouraged to sit with people they didn’t know well. After making sure that everyone had shared their name, the first exercise was for each to share a story about themselves that was funny or embarrassing.
They were given five minutes. It would have taken this reporter the rest of the evening to share embarrassing stories.
Then people were asked to share short phrases about what they like about Charlotte. The preponderance of responses were weighted toward appreciation for the natural beauty, for rural and small-town values. “Entrepreneurial spirit” was the only response pertaining to financial matters.
After informal and formal groups in the community have been identified, the second phase of the process will be collecting stories about what people love about Charlotte. From these stories, the aim is to generate statements it is hoped will indicate a project people want to accomplish.
Projects in other towns have included such goals as working to get sidewalks, improving a park, renovating an old church or fostering economic development.
Bloch has said he hopes in Charlotte the Community Heart & Soul will help in uniting the voices of the residents with the efforts of town hall. He would like for the process to help in revising the town plan.
If the town signs on to Community Heart & Soul, its project should come from a grass-roots, bottom-up initiative. And more chili.