Located in rural north central Massachusetts, North Quabbin has 26,000 residents who, for the past several years, have been reeling from a loss of manufacturing jobs, an underperforming school district, steep housing prices, growing numbers of working poor, and multi-generational poverty. These seemingly insurmountable problems had left residents increasingly frustrated.
Enter Mark Shoul and a dedicated group of community leaders. Prior to the Make it Your Own program, Shoul—a 30-year resident with deep experience in community development—and the leaders had been working on a project to change the region's civic culture “from one locked in polarization and ineffective problem solving to one with the capacity to find common ground and to collaboratively solve problems,” according to his proposal application.
The project’s first major initiative was to convene a community conversation among 70 leaders of different backgrounds and perspectives to discuss the future direction of their school district. The common ground that these leaders discovered—and then quantified in a detailed strategic plan—was a central factor in turning the district’s performance around.
With MIYO funding, Shoul and his colleagues was able to strengthen this effort—Hands Across North Quabbin (HANDS)—by recruiting and developing a critical mass of 200 diverse “civic innovators.” These innovators would be able to talk about and implement the Hands model across the region and recruit others to join too through public deliberation, meetings, priority-setting, and dialogue. Eventually, they would become a network core (or hub) from which other efforts would flow toward the goal of embedding these processes into the daily fabric of the community.
After receiving a MIYO grant, HANDS held a variety of events such as barbeques, “walks for collaboration,” spaghetti suppers, and other forums at local churches, schools, Lions Clubs, etc. to publicize the model and invite residents to join. They also
recruited hundreds of residents to public meetings and conversations to talk about the region’s challenges and what to do about them—conversations that involved representatives from 26 key community agencies.
These efforts led to some impressive results, including raising the money for and building (mostly with volunteer help) a community pavilion that now sits by the lake in the central park of the region. HANDS also held a professionally facilitated public conversation during which residents chose an issue they believed was important to work on together: the economic crisis. The group decided to address this issue by creating a new organization that could “boost up the scale”of green activities in the nine-town North Quabbin region.
This new organization was called the North Quabbin Green Economy Network (GEN), which eventually persuaded seven different town governments in the region to join together to be certified by the state of Massachusetts as a “green community”—a designation that allows the community to compete for a portion of a pool of state money for renewable energy projects.
According to Shoul:
This joining together as a region so our nine small rural towns can speak and act as a cohesive block gives our community a much greater capacity to compete for economic development resources with much larger urban areas.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment has been a marked reduction in the tension among residents. In his final report to the Foundation, Shoul describes how HANDS and a network of other local organizations with related missions worked together to foster the growth of a “new civic climate in the community that causes conflicts to dampen down relatively quickly rather than flare up into open warfare as they did in the past.”
That perception is shared by Dave Flint, former Athol Lions Club Chair and the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce’s “Man of the Year” in 2007, who said in an article that “the animosity that was going on in the community before has really been reduced.” HAND’s members also point to more collaboration between for-profits and nonprofits and with town governments, representatives of which have started meeting to explore regionalizing a range of community services.
HANDS, however, continues to struggle with financial challenges and making sure that the people in its network continue to be enthused and committed participants. It was only able to recruit 97 of its anticipated 200 “civic innovators,” although it believes that the group that is now in place is “well positioned” to move forward with a more ambitious plan with the community.
Whether the level of success that HANDS enjoyed would occur in a different kind of community is another question, Shoul admits, He points out:
The critical mass of individual and institutional support needed for changing civic cultures would probably be much smaller in our rural nine-town community of 26,000 residents than it would be if we were operating in a city of a million people.
Shoul and the HANDS network continue to push forward with big plans for their region—plans that include public deliberation as a central driver for change. He says:
The deliberative democracy process is like getting a farmer to use a new plow—he has to see that it works. But once he does, he doesn’t use anything else.