City conversations produce positivity, ideas for actions

VERGENNES — Facilitated online community conversations held on Oct. 8 and 15 drew a combined total of about 125 Vergennes residents who offered long lists of things they appreciated about their hometown and suggestions to move it forward from what has been an at-times chaotic summer.
Co-organizer Sarah Stroup said the first meeting, attended by about 75, focused on the pluses and minuses, while the second focused on “action ideas” that citizens could take on independently of existing government and nonprofit structures.
Experts Susan Clark, author of  “Slow Democracy,” and Delia Clark helped guide the conversations. Both meetings broke out into small groups with volunteer citizen facilitators to allow all participants a chance to be heard.
Stroup, who worked with fellow resident Jon Kidde to pull the conversations together, gave an overview.
“The first meeting introduced guidelines for discussion and identified the things that people in our community love about Vergennes. We then came up with a list of things that were working and not working in our public dialogue,” Stroup said.
At the second meeting, she said,  “We reported … what happened last Thursday, the things that people thought were working well in Vergennes, the things they cared about, and then we asked what action ideas do you have for the things that are working well in Vergennes can be leveraged to where we need to see change.”
Participants then “went back into small groups to try to workshop some of those ideas, just take one of those actions and take it through about what might work well and how to make some space for community members to get involved that really doesn’t require action by anybody else. It’s stuff we can do on our own,” Stroup said.
The effort did attract attention from nonprofit leaders, however, and Stroup said their support would be welcome. She noted officials from the Bixby Library, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, Vergennes Partnership, city planning commission, United Way of Addison County, and Addison County Community Trust attended.
“On the second day, especially when we were talking about specific items, it was great to have movers and shakers from the community there,” she said.
In a follow-up email to all the participants Stroup and Kidde are surveying them about the experience, and created an “Action Idea Form to connect people who are willing to put time into one or more specific action idea(s).” 
Those action ideas built upon the Oct. 8 conversation, which began with the prompt, “What is currently working well in our conversations and public engagement?”
Small group facilitators took notes and paraphrased answers on a number of different areas:
Local economy, downtown, and walkability:
•  “Knowing the merchants, supporting their businesses.”
•  “Like a Richard Scarry—the scale is small but that action is busy.”
•  “Lots of serendipitous sidewalk conversations”
•  “Schools are working well.”
•  “We’ve never had so many people running for office—that’s a good thing.”
•  “There’s no shortage of volunteers. It’s just a matter of figuring out the best way.”
•  Lots of small discussion groups coming together.
Healthy disagreement:
•  “There’s lots of healthy disagreement with people we love and respect.”
•  “I appreciate moments when we’ve seen respectful, constructive criticism.”
•  “Residents agree on much more than they disagree.”
Pride in local government’s history and potential:
•  “Access and conversations to public officials in the City have historically been really
•  “Experienced people asking newer people for their thoughts.”
Pandemic-related and social media connections:
•  “Zoom makes people talk to others. Virtually, lots of people show up.”
•  “Working from home, I know my neighbors now better than I ever did before COVID.”
•  “Front Porch Forum is active, useful, and (generally) positive.”
Black Lives Matter:
•  “BLM meeting in the park — a lot of learning.”
•  “Attempts to invite diverse voices into our conversations.”
•  We’re hearing more from high school students, especially through BLM
Neighborliness and Caring:
•  “Neighbors caring for neighbors.”
•  “I’m new, and everyone has been really welcoming, and reaching out to introduce
•  “Passed down through generations.”
•  “We have a lot goodness in our community to build upon.”
The sessions produced a dozen-and-a-half suggestions for action items:
•  Continue getting to know neighbors and build opportunities for engagement.
•  Plan and coordinate a virtual Vergennes meet & greet.
•  Bring together group leaders to break down silos.
•  Help community members understand how people here are marginalized (old vs. new; economically privileged and those are not).
•  Facilitate coordination with Job Corps.
•  Propose ways to decrease barriers to participate through technology (e.g. Zoom).
•  Plan and offer community trainings on facilitation.
•  Enhance recreation.
•  Help plan trail workdays.
•  Plan and propose an off-leash dog park.
•  Set up a fundraising committee.
•  Re-establish a golf team at Vergennes Union High School.
•  Communication & Information Sharing.
•  Hold a brown bag series to learn about and discuss city issues.
•  Update City website to include a better resource for sharing information.
•  Develop an official city newsletter (to supplement website for those who don’t use the internet).
•  Establish a central community calendar.
•  Establish an informational chalkboard or bulletin board.
•  Use Lions as a venue for sharing information/mentorship.

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