Through most of the past decade, Deb Fallows and I have been traveling the country, town by town, reporting —often to our own surprise — on the work that people have been doing to improve their lives and communities in the face of real and serious economic and social challenges.
The improvements we’ve seen have directly addressed the ills most often discussed as failings of modern America. These include polarization on the national level seeping down to the local, or cleavages on the basis of region, education, race, faith, or other differences. For every story we’ve read about divisions along these lines, which are real, we’ve seen many instances of Americans working to pull their communities, and ultimately their nation, together into a more cooperative whole. This part of American life is also real, but much less publicized.
We have been writing about, and making connections among the people, organizations, and institutions in America that have found ways to move away from the national narrative about mistrust and bitterness toward locally-created answers and solutions. The results led to the book Our Towns, published in 2018; the HBO documentary of the same name, which came out last year and is still showing on HBO Max; and creation in 2021 of the Our Towns Civic Foundation, whose purpose (as explained here) is to highlight, connect, and support people doing the work of community renewal, and to make it easier for them to learn from and with one another.
Along the way in this journey, one of our most valuable discoveries was the achievements and people of the Community Heart & Soul program (or CH&S), created by the Orton Family Foundation of Vermont. Members of the Orton family were the founders of the Vermont Country Store. The current patriarch of the Orton family, Lyman Orton — who with Janice Izzi now leads the foundation — explained in this YouTube video how the family’s and company’s experience in person-to-person growth of their own business carried over naturally into their approach to bottom-up, shoulder-to-shoulder renewal of smaller towns.
In a piece she did last summer about Bucksport, Maine, Deb Fallows explained what this process had meant in a small, coastal community that all of a sudden lost its dominant source of jobs, tax revenue, and identity. As CH&S lays out on its site, and as Deb describes in the Bucksport piece, this renewal process is a step-by-step approach to: finding out through people’s own stories what they think about their town; identifying what is fundamentally important to them; settling together on the practical efforts and steps to take to improve those fundamentals; creating an action plan, public accountability for how far and fast they are moving; and finally, embedding all these into the DNA of the town to sustain the renewal process, potentially forever. In 2022, perhaps the most radical-seeming aspect of the CH&S approach is its emphasis on face-to-face discussion, deliberation, consensus-building, and progress.
The Community Heart & Soul process has now been applied in more than 100 American communities. (You can see them on this interactive map.) Their ambition is to spread to hundreds more. Today Deb and I, and our colleagues at the Our Towns foundation, are proud to announce a partnership with Community Heart & Soul, to tell more stories of more communities that have applied their process, to let other communities know about this approach, and to connect those who have already applied the CH&S approach with their counterparts across the nation who are finding similar ways to address their local problems and imagine—and produce—a better future. And we will be telling the stories of other communities, applying other approaches, to see what combination of innovations and responses offers the best prospects for bringing vitality and opportunity across the country.
Through the Our Towns journeys, Deb and I spent serious time in more than 50 towns before our book came out, and another few dozen since then. There is a limit to how many more towns the two of us can visit for the full, immersive, multi-trip, several-week treatment that we have given places from Dodge City, Kansas, to Eastport, Maine. But there is no foreseeable limit to our ambitions to connect the people who are inventing, testing, and improving ways to address the problems of their community, and to their lessons and examples so they can become part of a nationwide movement.
The desire to connect, and to foster mutual improvement, is one of the enduring goals for this foundation and its platforms. We have started with this website now, and will soon be expanding our offerings of events, video presentations, local reports, podcasts, “lessons learned” sessions, and other ways to make dispersed innovators around the country aware of their potential as a nationwide movement.
The other most important goal for this effort is to give today’s Americans a clearer view of their own country—the bads but also the goods, the threats to a sense of American community but also the new potential sources of community and cooperation. We’re planning a new range of stories, from a new range of contributors, on solutions like those created by CH&S and from other organizations as well. We are honored to be connected in this new partnership, and we look forward to being part of a growing movement for renewal across the country, from the grass-roots up.