Case Studies: Public Engagement
Can we create a process for the people of our town to solve community problems in a way that strengthens our community, allows people to feel ownership of the process and results, and that focuses on issues, not personalities?
For Uxbridge, a small town in the Blackstone River Valley of central Massachusetts, the answer to this question became a resounding YES.
In the winter of 2004, Uxbridge was suffering the divisions experienced by so many small towns. Community conflict over education and property taxes, fueled by anonymous postings on the Internet, hardened into acrimonious factionalism that was poisoning the life of the community.
Uxbridge’s State Senator Richard Moore was determined to help stitch this community back together. In an open letter to community leaders, he expressed his concern with the bitter tone of civic discourse in Uxbridge. He invited representatives of over 40 public and civic organizations to come together to discuss what could be done.
Townspeople resolved to find a way to work together and formed Uxbridge’s Future Committee. Senator Moore, determined to make this project a success, felt the committee would benefit from neutral, outside expertise so he invited Gayle to share ideas with the group on how they could work together. Senator Moore was familiar with Gayle’s work through his role as a commissioner for the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, for which Gayle had facilitated commissioner and staff planning retreats and provided facilitation and consultation for community input.
Our public engagement work
Town residents responded to Gayle’s suggestions and invited her to work with them. With Senator Moore’s continued leadership, Gayle helped plan and guide the monthly work sessions. Through her facilitation and public engagement consultation, Gayle created a safe space for people to work and learn together. She helped the committee define the central question for its work (see opening above) and craft a set of shared guidelines for working together. Her monthly presence was a gentle reminder to all to honor their commitments. Gayle’s guidance at meetings allowed all opinions to be safely voiced and respectfully heard.
Finding common ground
Over the next year, Gayle helped that roomful of adversaries become a team. Different factions of the community came to a dialogue session to learn more about each other. At Gayle’s urging, the committee invited middle and high school students to talk to them about the needs and dreams of town young people. Over time, the fears of long-time residents dissolved as they learned that newcomers weren’t trying to undo all that they valued about their town but also felt the same about what was special about their community. “Newcomer” and “old-timer” stereotypes couldn’t survive the reality check of professionally facilitated face-to-face conversation.
Moving from dialogue to action
And come together they did! Members of the committee, in partnership with the superintendent of schools, launched the Uxbridge Education Foundation to raise donations for their schools. In only two years, the Foundation has raised nearly $22,000 for scholarships and for mini-grants to enhance educational programs in the Uxbridge schools. An annual Superintendent’s Gala and a golf tournament help to bring members of the community together in social settings further cementing relationships. A subcommittee formed to help revitalize Pout Pond, a cherished but neglected town recreational area. The committee drafted and circulated among their neighbors A Vision for Uxbridge’s Future that was endorsed by local officials and adopted at Town Meeting. With so much progress being made by the spring of 2006, Gayle happily turned the facilitation and future of the committee over to its capable members.
- Services used:
- Public engagement design
- Large group facilitation
- Study Circles (adapted)
- Focus groups