By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — Talk of a congress and “community organizers” might bring to mind national politics — but for the planners behind this year’s Addison County Conservation Congress, a daylong summit slated to take place later this month at Mount Abraham Union High School, those words ring true a little closer to home.
The Oct. 25 event, sponsored by the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACoRN) and Vermont Family Forests (VFF), aims to bring together anywhere between 150 and 300 county residents to dig into this year’s theme: “Addison County in Transition: Visioning Our Community in 2020 and Mapping the Next Steps to Get There.”
The day aims to do exactly what its title calls for: dream up a portrait of the county in 12 years, and begin work on the roadmap necessary to make that vision a reality.
That lofty goal is a departure from the country conservation congresses of the past, which started in 1992, explained David Brynn, a forester with VFF. After five annual meetings, organizers took a hiatus from the project — a break that ended up lasting 10 years.
Brynn and other planners revived the meetings last year. But according to Brynn, this year’s congress signals a paradigm shift for the event.
“The first six were about finding controversial conservation issues that we could deliberate and argue about in a supportive setting,” Brynn explained. “The idea was really to debate them and not necessarily to reach any consensus but to get things out in a respectful environment.”
This year’s congress, the seventh, focuses more on the human community, and the future Addison County’s residents can create for themselves in the face of three major challenges: peak oil, climate change, and the financial crisis.
“This congress, we’re really looking for common ground, a common vision, and we’re trying to have more of a product at the end of the day,” he said. “We are going to celebrate the fact that we have this wonderfully productive, resilient land underneath us, but we’re looking at the people and how they are interacting with the land.”
The congress will kick off with a few large-group activities — including a visualization of the community in 2020, led by Middlebury College professor and Bristol resident John Elder.
Then, participants will break into 12 rooms for focused discussions. Each group will be centered around a different topic, including food and farming, business and enterprise, community arts and culture, and health and wellness.
In a discussion on education and lifelong learning, North Ferrisburgh resident and retired teacher Barbara McKay will lead a conversation about how schooling will be affected by environmental changes.
“I’m generating what I hope are thought-provoking questions,” said McKay. “How will curricula be different? Where will schools be?”
McKay said that she wants to emphasize the fact that there could be “terrific benefits” — that generating ideas about what individuals would like to see happen in the face of environmental and economic changes can bring a sense of excitement to looking toward the future instead of one of doom and gloom.
“I’ve been talking to some really innovative educators as I invite people to my room,” McKay said. She’s hoping that educators and parents who are “on the ground” will contribute to the discussion — that “some innovative, creative thinkers will come and participate.”
Brynn emphasized that while community groups will certainly be represented at the congress, he hopes individuals without these group affiliations will come as well.
“Just come as a community member and jump right in,” he said.
What will emerge at the end of the day is a vision statement from each room and three specific actions to be taken in the next year to help manifest that vision: one personal, one for a neighborhood or town, and one for Addison County.
Though Brynn said he hopes to see concrete actions come out of the congress, he admitted that he’s not yet sure what shape those plans will take, or how they’ll be executed in the future.
“In some ways, the idea is to come into the congress, celebrate the fact that there are a lot of very, very good and hopeful things happening here, (and) get sort of the sense that there’s this larger thing occurring,” he said. “The congress isn’t an institution. It’s a place where people are coming together.”
More information and pre-registration for the congress can be found at www.familyforests.org.
The suggested donation is $10 for adults and $5 for students. A localvore lunch will be available for $8. The congress will take place on Saturday, Oct. 25, at MAUHS from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Participants are encouraged to register in advance in order to ensure that they can join one of their first-choice discussion groups.