"Why do you live here?" That's what residents of one Addison County town will be asked this fall. As if that weren't hard enough to answer, other questions go like this: "How does the working landscape impact your life?" and "What one thing, if lost, would irrevocably change the quality of your life in this community?"
Those and other inquiries drive the "Addison County Art & Soul Civic Engagement Initiative," a new project sponsored by the Vermont Land Trust and the Middlebury- and Denver-based Orton Family Foundation. Later this week, project organizers will select one of the six towns that applied for the initial $55,000 grant.
"Art & Soul" is divided into three related initiatives and will unfold over an 18-month period. First, this fall, Middlebury College professor John Elder will dispatch a team of students to gather stories related to land use and sense of place in the selected community. The students will then collaborate with community members to create a series of readings, plays and videos based on the interviews. Second, an artist-in-residence will work with the town's citizens until September 2009 to develop works of art based on an ongoing series of community-wide dialogues.
Under the third part of the plan, dubbed "From Art to Soul and Beyond," the chosen town will receive $25,000 to enact policy changes related to land use, zoning or conservation. John Barstow, communications director for Orton, says this third component is designed to help residents work on developing a "living democracy" - i.e., a municipal decision-making process propelled not from the top down but by community-generated solutions to land-use challenges.
The Orton Family Foundation is an "operating" - that is, "not grant-making" - nonprofit that helps communities in New England and the Rocky Mountain West develop positive approaches to land-use planning. Orton and VLT will receive additional support for "Art & Soul" from the Vermont Arts Council and "Animating Democracy," a program of the Washington, D.C.- and New York City-based nonprofit Americans for the Arts.
Elder, a nature writer and longtime member of Middlebury's Environmental Studies faculty, says it's possible that his "Portrait of a Vermont Town" class will help inform long-term planning decisions, but that policy change isn't the ultimate goal of his interview project. "I won't take the stories as a means to an end," he says. "I'll take them as a basis for . . . enhancing a sense of place and community."
After all, Elder adds, if interviews are conducted without a specific policy goal in mind, "then in the long run, people's need to have good policy will be enhanced."