Create a regular community conversation.
Almost every Thursday since 2009, Buckhannon residents have gathered at C.J. Maggie’s restaurant in Buckhannon for an affordable noon meal and a “Create Buckhannon” session. Anyone is welcome. As they eat, they plan ways to make their town healthier and more prosperous. “We’ve had 60 people, and we’ve had four people at the meeting,” facilitator C.J. Rylands said. “We just keep meeting. That’s the important thing. Usually, it will be about 25.”
“If somebody has an idea, we ask what the first steps would be,” Rylands said. “If someone wants to take those first steps, we set a date for them to report back. If nobody wants to take those first steps, we go on to the next thing. We go where the conversation takes us.
“It’s a very satisfying process,” he said. “We’re just citizens, not an official group or a 501(c)3,” he said. But they have coordinated the creation of a park, a weekly summer music festival and market, a city plan, various downtown improvements and safe biking and walking routes, among other things.
See the Create Buckhannon home page, with the slogan “Community volunteers enhance the quality of place.” http://www.createbuckhannon.com/
Participant Steve Foster, of the Upshur County Development Authority, says they decided to start with a couple of small, easily-achieved things. “That way, you get a reputation as a group that gets things done. When people see results, they get really excited. And small steps led to later steps.
To participate, “you don’t have to be involved with every project,” he said. “Pick something that’s near and dear to you and find a group of people who share that interest, and maybe we can help make it happen.”
During the lunches, many projects are proposed, Rylands said. “Some go nowhere, but if there’s somebody who really cares about a project, they research it and report back, and maybe some other people join in, and we’ve got another project going,” he said.
The food is important, he said. “It draws people, and it creates an easy atmosphere. We’re breaking bread together, sharing ideas.”
Watch the Create Buckhannon video:
The idea is spreading. In 2013, community conversations began in Fairmont, Elkins, and Richwood.
About 125 miles away each week, people in Huntington do basically the same thing. They meet each Thursday after work for “Chat ‘n’ Chew” at a local hotel. Over snacks and wine or cider, they talk about what they can do to make the community a better place to live.
Chat ‘n’ Chew started in 2009. The conversations have led to a dog part, the West Virginia 5K race, a local foods distribution center, recycling clubs, an artwalk, Critical Mass bike rides, and a revitalized downtown area, among other things.
“It works,” said co-founder Tom McChesney. “Huntington didn’t have any place where people could have regular, great conversations about our community. Chat ‘n’ Chew changes that. It makes it a lot easier to get things going. And people are starting to see the possibilities. They’re starting to see the community’s assets.”
Chat ‘n’ Chew is one part of Create Huntington. Unlike Create Buckhannon, Create Huntington is a 501(c)3. It raises money and distributes it in mini-grants for community projects. They also offer occasional classes such as grantwriting, social media, finding volunteers and community resources.
Here’s a newspaper story about Huntington’s Chat ‘n’ Chew.
Want to start a community conversation in your community?
- First, do some reading. These talks need a safe atmosphere, and somebody has to know how to create that. Get a feeling for the philosophy and facilitation techniques behind successful efforts in other places.
- “What are community conversations?” A roadmap that effectively lays out the basic steps and principals behind successful conversations. https://michaelhaupt.com/community-conversation-guide-a15d11fa37e3#.uhn389fnp
- Read the Create Buckhannon “Meet and Eat” guidelines. Meet and eat guidelines, Create Buckhannon
- Here are their “norms” for meetings, their civility rules. CBuckNorms
- The role of the conversation facilitator.
- Community Conversations, by Paul Born: http://tamarackcommunity.ca/g3_books1.html
Visit a community with a successful community conversation.
- Create Huntington’s weekly “Chat and Chew” sessions take place at 5:30 Thursdays. http://www.createhuntington.com
- Create Buckhannon’s list of achievements for its first few years is here. Every Thursday at noon. Contact Create Buckhannon: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sustainable Williamson: This broad collaboration of Williamson groups includes city government, the school system, businesses, the Diabetes Coalition, and many other groups. As Williamsonr Wellness Center administrator Darrin McCormick said, “Our goal is always the health and prosperity of the community, rather than the specific project we’re working on at the moment.” Read about their wide range of projects at www.sustainablewilliamson.org and http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201302230047.
- West Virginia Center for Civic Life. Dedicated to civil community discussion: Lots of great info on community conversations: http://www.wvciviclife.org .
Here are some tips:
- Invite people from a wide variety of groups. “We don’t send out official invitations,” Rylands said. “We talk it up, and people come because they hear we’re doing things.” People come from the development group, city council come, the college and churches, business owners, a wide variety of groups and unaffiliated individuals.
- Get a local restaurant involved. Why is Create Buckhannon so successful? “One reason is food,” C.J. Rylands said. People meet at his restaurant, C.J. Maggie’s, at a huge table in a private room. He has a dish (with meat and without) ready for them, a $7 lunch, and they talk while they eat. “Lunch is a convenient time for most people, and food creates a good atmosphere.”
- Keep the conversation going online. Facebook, Web site, local papers, TV, whatever. Let the community know what the group is doing and talking about, however you can.
- Sign up for community development training. Blueprint community development training helps pull together a core group and provides you with a coach who can help you get going. See what various Blueprint communities are doing at http://wvhub.org/blueprint .
- Do you need to create an official group, a non-profit? No. You can, but you don’t have to. Create Buckhannon is proud not to be one. Sustainable Williamson is not one. “We’re just a bunch of volunteers who talk every week,” Buckhannon’s C.J. Rylands said.
“When we need an official group, we use the Redevelopment Authority or the health nonprofit,” Williamson’s Darrin McCormick said. But both groups have Web sites and facebook pages.
Here are resources to help create community conversations:
- Making the Healthy Choices. The six counties of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department held a series of “healthy county discussions.” They developed a fill-in form that can be very helpful in starting an ongoing conversation: http://ctfwvresources.com/docs/Making-the-Healthy-Choice.pdf
- “Creating a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation guide to making a healthy lifestyle plan for your community:” http://www.bridgingthegapresearch.org
- An overall look at the components of a successful community physical activity plan, based on the U.S. Physical Activity Plan, from General Mills: http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/ncppa/make_the_move/index.php#/22
- KEYS 4HealthyKids, a Kanawha County group focused on children, has a toolkit for community action at http://keys4healthykids.com/fivesteps/