Heart and Soul

May 28, 2009 Leave a comment

“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”

—Harold Goddard

As current President and CEO of the Orton Family Foundation Bill Roper tells the story, a couple of decades ago Lyman Orton, proprietor of the Vermont Country Store, was involved in local town planning efforts in Weston, Vermont. In the 1980s, at a time when the state was experiencing a building boom due to the rise of second home ownership, Weston and other small towns found themselves struggling to preserve their unique character while continuing to grow and embrace change. The local town planning commission in Weston, of which Orton was a member, discovered that it was ill equipped to address existing zoning restrictions and bylaws, which left town members powerless around policies that affected land use in their community. The frustration of this experience spurred the creation of the Orton Family Foundation, which began supporting small towns by providing resources, including user-friendly GIS mapping and visualization tools, to citizens to help them envision and ultimately have a say in their communities’ future.

Under Bill Roper’s leadership, the Orton Family Foundation places a particular emphasis on helping towns identify and protect the essence of their community through the collection of shared stories. Like all of the work of the Foundation, efforts have been made to make planning accessible to non-planner types. To this end, language is everything. Roper and his staff avoid jargon by asking residents simply (but profoundly) to identify the “heart and soul” of their community. As they say on their website, “Traditional quantitative approaches use important data about demographic and economic shifts, traffic counts and infrastructure needs, but frequently fail to account for the particular ways people relate to their physical surroundings and ignore or discount the intangibles—shared values, beliefs and quirky customs—that make community. . . . Furthermore, a collection of quantifiable attributes without an understanding of shared values and a sense of purpose does not motivate citizens to show up and make tough, consistent decisions.” In other words, when it comes downs to it, it’s about people.

Time and again, this revelation comes up in various policy debates where experts come together and more often than not leave out the people who are most impacted by (and who have much to offer) their decisions. We know the devastating impact this can have, and yet it continues. In a recent blog post, Dave Snowden rails against obsessions with outcomes measurement when it comes to reforming social services, saying that we continue to look for fail safe, quantifiable, and expert-driven solutions to problems that are much too complex to lend themselves to expertly engineered solutions. He makes a case for greater involvement of the system (including everyday citizens) and the use of narrative to understand the dynamics of and ways of working with the system. With the Orton Foundation example, we might add the importance of using language that invites broader and deeper engagement. This is about creating space for people to share their own experiences and perspectives, allowing not only for the relevance of these stories, but their power to shape something new.

How might we do more of this in our work, to make room not just for the sharing of facts and figures, but stories? And what are the stories we are telling ourselves that are shaping our worlds?

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