Starksboro, VT

Contact Name
Matthew Perry
Project Dates
2008 - Present
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2011
In the Spring of 2008, the OFF and the Vermont Land Trust (VLT) in consultation with Animating Democracy (a program of Americans for the Arts), issued a Call for Community Partners to Addison County, Vermont towns eager to collaborate on a new approach to community engagement using the arts. Starksboro residents crafted a proposal that won the attention of the Foundation and the Land Trust that applied a nationally recognized model in the school - integrating arts for improved student engagement, to the broader community. The Foundation believes that by getting in touch with deeper community values and connections to place, citizens will be able to improve on traditional approaches to planning and make better decisions about the future of their communities.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
Key goals at the outset of the project: *Pilot an arts-based process to engage new audiences in a deep discussion of community heart and soul, values and identity. *Create a framework for reflection and discovery, creative expression and conversation, ongoing community dialogue and interaction using the arts and storytelling. *Explore ways to mitigate the divisiveness of many conservation discussions, opening a dialogue on difficult issues and leading participants to new ways of thinking. *Engage youth in multi-generational community conversations and decisions. *Build community capacity to continue dialogue, involve citizens and address new issues as they arise. *Conduct an open and inclusive process leading to a community vision.
Have they changed over time?
Project goals did not change that much over time.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
Stakeholders were the residents of Starksboro and its community organizations, from the Fire Department to the Library to the Mobile Home Parks.
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
The project was implemented in three phases.
1.Community Storytelling:
A Middlebury College class led by Professor John Elder spent three months collecting the stories of town residents. Among the 50 townspeople interviewed were elders, youth, landowners, farmers, town officials and local historians. Trained by the Vermont Folklife Center, the students asked residents to talk about their lives in Starksboro and allowed themes to emerge. The students produced audio and video clips, audio slide shows and a book of stories and interactive maps, which are available on the project website and are archived at the Vermont Folklife Center and the Starksboro Town Library. The storytelling phase culminated with a town-wide community supper and celebration attended by about 250 people, at which the Middlebury College students shared their final edited stories. The students distributed a book of Starksboro Stories (published by the College) to every family attending. The Middlebury class blog site, “Stories from a Vermont Town,” contains stories, video clips and discussions about how to make this project as valuable as possible to the people of Starksboro.

2.Conversation and Vision: From Stories to Art.
Artist, Matthew Perry of the Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington, Vermont served as the Artist-in-Residence. Perry is known for drawing together diverse citizens—such as volunteer fire fighters and town board members, landowners and schoolchildren, old timers and newcomers—helping them address community issues through a variety of art forms. Perry worked in the community over nine months, often using an old school bus he converted to an “art bus” or mobile studio. He helped residents turn some of the community stories into works of art that celebrate life in Starksboro and provoked discussion about what should be preserved or changed. His initial projects have included stringing up a clothesline with t-shirts at town meeting, on which residents could “air their dirty laundry” (concerns) and develop “washing instructions” (solutions); and helping residents paint sap buckets at a local sugaring celebration, which was displayed and auctioned off. A group of Starksboro high school students also interviewed community members and created sculptures that reflected what they heard. Throughout the process, Starksboro hosted celebrations to showcase the artworks, facilitate conversations and help flesh out the community’s beliefs and aspirations. Along with the Artist-in-Residence, the schools and other community groups worked on similar projects, integrating student art with the community presentations. Perry’s final piece that was gifted to the Town, was a wood carved community map that captured the stories, histories and lives of Starksboro.
Have they been refined over time?

3. Taking Action: From Art to Action.
In the final project phase, townspeople identified ways to reflect their shared values in concrete actions, policies and choices shaping the future of their community. Starksboro will use the project results to strengthen and implement its Town Plan and other community development projects including renovations to historic public buildings and development of trails and pedestrian paths in the Village. In addition, the school has continued storytelling and engaging students in civic projects. Local artists have been involved with developing artwork for the trails and hosting workshops in the school and mobile home park. The entire process was documented by a local film maker and the final video has been shared with local and regional audiences.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles?
The geographical challenges that divide Starksboro into “hamlets” has historically led to isolation of different parts of the community from each other. As one resident put it, “To be honest, you can do Art & Soul for the next 100 years and I don’t think there will be big changes in that.” The lack of a traditional “town center” with the typical amenities of a green, a general store, meeting space, etc., further impedes townspeople from identifying with a shared commons. Given the small population, there may be a dearth of volunteers serve on town committees. Economic and cultural conditions in the mobile home parks pose challenges to resident’s involvement in town life and identification with the town in general.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
By utilizing the Art Bus and holding “Roadside Conversations in various neighborhoods, it helped bring people together. New Gathering Places were identified such as a new barn just built by a young couple resulting in several community events. Working directly with residents in the mobile home parks gave them a sense of new ownership and pride.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Tap into interest. Find an interest in attaining the goals of engaging new voices, bridging town divides, involving youth in community dialogue, and tapping into the power of storytelling, arts and culture for engagement and strengthening social capital. 2. Start with stories. Storytelling and story sharing have helped people to feel part of the larger community, building trust and momentum for taking on projects new and old, and bringing people from different neighborhoods together at a single event. After the well-attended story-sharing event, citizens were inspired to reignite or start various community projects. 3. Build relationships
. The students and artist in residence visited residents and community organizations several times, often in their homes, to build relationships and to understand the context and issues around their stories. They attended hunter breakfasts and harvest dinners, which lent credibility to their work and created a buzz in town.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
1) Increasing collaborations across creative communities 2) professionals across creative disciplines interested in working with us because they are moved by our mission and 3) audience members attending our events because they love the idea that their admission fee supports not only those working on the production but also the organizations who are our beneficiaries.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
In 2010 we collaborated with various creative organizations in our effort to implement WAM Theatre’s mission across our two regions (Berkshires of MA and Capital Region of NY). For example, WAM Theatre hosted a Theatresports Tournament fundraiser where improvisation companies from both our regions (RBIT from the Berkshires, MA and MOPCO from the Capital Region, NY) had a friendly improvisation tournament. It was a huge success and led to both companies seeking each other out for future collaborations. We also reached out to local professionals to see if they would collaborate with us as mentors for our interns. In a happy turn of events, one of our interns, Kaitlyn Squires (marketing associate, Fall 2010), was mentored by Kevin Sprague (owner of Studio Two in Lenox, MA) and at the end of the mentorship, he offered Kaitlyn as job! We are continually amazed at how many people are eager and willing to help as part of the WAM Theatre community. In 2011, we already have two creative community collaborative events planned with more in the discussion stage. We continue to match interns with mentors. It is clear that creative communities in both our regions are eager to collaborate. From those who work with us to those who become part of the community we form at each of our theatrical events, WAM Theatre is proud to be a catalyst towards creative community building.
Were there unexpected impacts?
Surprisingly, the unexpected impacts were the same as the projects contributions to creative community building: 1) Increasing collaborations across creative communities 2) professionals across creative disciplines interested in working with us because they are moved by our mission and 3) audience members attending our events because they love the idea that their admission fee supports not only those working on the production but also the organizations who are our beneficiaries.
CCX Workshop Handout