Citizens meet to listen and talk about Mount Abe schools

BRISTOL — Suppose for a moment that the 52 people who attended the Mount Abraham Unified School District’s community engagement workshop on Saturday showed up with a candle they wanted to light.
And let’s say that over the course of nearly seven hours of working together, each one of them managed to light their candle.
Then let us picture those 52 candles as multipliers, cupped in protective hands, making their way into the community and lighting fresh candles, new flames begetting still more flames.
Now imagine this process spreading neither light nor information, but rather the simple act of listening.
This, in a way, is the possibility held out by what happened in the Bristol Elementary School gym on Saturday.
In the MAUSD, the spread of listening has begun.
“I’m rarely a person who’s satisfied at the end of a meeting,” said Starksboro resident Nancy Cornell, “but I’m very encouraged by the distance we’ve come.”
Monkton resident Robin Shalline agreed.
“This felt like a microcosm of what we can achieve when we go back to our communities,” she said. “It makes me feel empowered.”
Workshop attendees did get the chance to compile a list of “pressing issues” in their school district.
It started out long — roughly 30 items.
After voting, however, a top-five list emerged:
•Facilities and buildings.
•Participatory budgeting.
•Communication pathways.
•School-based councils.
•Policy governance reform and development.
But this deliberative process was far from the first thing on the agenda. It was arrived at gently, after hours of discussion — some of it between pairs, some by town, some among the entire group.
Along the way, a few attendees occasionally expressed impatience.
“We keep going through step one over and over again, but not getting anywhere,” said Mount Abraham Union High School 11th-grader Camille Lyons, who was disappointed that the day’s workshop would not be building on the MAUSD-sponsored community engagement forum she attended in October.
Some felt worried.
“I feel like we’re in a ditch,” said Bristol resident Alice Leeds. “We need to figure out how to get out of it.”
Still others were concerned about overcoming community resistance.
“The aging population of my community sees engagement as a weakness,” said New Haven resident Kathi Apgar. “They expect our board members and our elected officials to organize and then act. They trust them to do that. But they see this (community engagement process) as a huge piece of insecurity and inability to move forward.”
Sue McCormack, the professional facilitator MAUSD hired to lead the workshop, sympathized.
“We have to find ways to serve those folks,” she said. “But we also need to acknowledge that expectations are changing. The generations that are coming up are not going to be OK with that.”
Engagement work isn’t for everybody, McCormack acknowledged.
“Some people have no patience with the process. They just want to act. So you’re not going to force people to do this. But when you have this as an option you are building social capital, building civic fabric, building trust and relationships,” she said.
MONKTON RESIDENTS WORKING on an asset map of their town during Saturday’s community engagement workshop at Bristol Elementary School. 
Independent photo/Christopher Ross
Later, during a discussion titled “Making the Case for Engagement,” McCormack elaborated.
“There are changing expectations between communities and leaders,” she said. “People expect to have a voice, they can organize quickly and they can get information easily.”
And they don’t want to be treated like children, she said.
A mix of students, teachers, administrators, board members and 5-town residents attended the workshop, which was organized by MAUSD board member Krista Siringo and Bristol resident Sally Burrell.
Participants told stories about themselves. They mapped the assets in their communities. They exchanged ideas. They changed their minds.
And they developed a plan:
•Facilitator training.
•Outreach planning.
•Community conversations.
•Reporting back to the community.
During a transition between activities the Independent asked McCormack when the “aha!” moment typically arrives in this work (she has facilitated community conversations in Weybridge, Essex Junction and all over New England).
Often it takes years, she said, long after she’s gone.
It’s one of the disappointments of her job, she added — not being there to see it happen.
But nothing about the way she spoke reflected a lack of hope.
The “aha!” moments do happen, and when they do, communities can be transformed by them.
McCormack will be sticking around the MAUSD for a while yet, at least several months, training new facilitators, designing new conversations, helping spread the listening.
Workshop organizers met Monday night to review Saturday’s event and map out a plan.
“We are going to invite everyone who attended on Saturday, who is willing, to have one-on-one conversations with five (or more!) community members from their respective towns,” said Krista Siringo in an email.
Conversations goals include:
•Gathering feedback on how the district is doing.
•Providing updates about community engagement goals.
•Promoting future Community Conversations.
•Sharing the top-five priorities voted on at the workshop.
•Soliciting input about other priorities.
Those interested in joining the process may contact Siringo for more information at [email protected].
More information about the concept of participatory budgeting is available at participatorybudgeting.org.
Participatory Budgeting in Schools from PBP on Vimeo.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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