BRATTLEBORO—“Keep Vermont Weird” read the T-shirt in a shop window in downtown Brattleboro.
That shirt would not fit in every Vermont town, said Pennsylvania-based community organizer Denys Candy on one of his many visits to Vermont.
“OK, there’s something going on here,” he said of Brattleboro, where it’s evident people have a deep love and commitment for this area.
It’s also evident to Candy that Brattleboro has multiple initiatives and an inordinate amount of “silos,” Candy told a group of about 20 gathered in a circle at Equilibrium on Elm Street on Sept. 23.
Candy presented in Brattleboro this summer on economic development and community revitalization. He returned to Equilibrium to discuss building effective coalitions in Brattleboro — a hot topic given the variety of projects happening around town.
Building coalitions — and knocking down thought silos — is about “creating a big enough table and [having multiple groups] agree on action and getting it done together,” he said.
Moving forward, however, requires harmony, Candy said.
When a community has as many silos as it does initiatives, it suggests a lack of harmony.
Brattleboro doesn’t need more initiatives, in Candy’s view. Rather, he said, people need to connect the dots between the initiatives that already exist.
Candy says his first premise in building coalitions is that all initiatives, regardless of stated goals, have an underlying goal of health.
For example, arts organizations are concerned with cultural health, he said; economic development organization focus on economic health; environmentalists take up environmental health.
Candy said people should stop looking at elements of a community as separate.
“A coalition is for looking at artful approaches to inter-related aspects of our health,” he said.
Candy recently learned one in five children in Vermont deal with hunger. People must think of the health of these kids even when discussing the arts, he said.
“We must hold a broad awareness of what our health is, so [our] actions can be informed,” he said.
Civic engagement, or involving as many people as possible, underscores Candy’s second premise on coalitions.
Traditionally, organizations take their first steps on an initiative by deciding on its product. The organizations then proceed to solicit community feedback based on how to achieve specific outcomes.
Candy suggested allowing the process to shape the outcome.
When a sailor leaves Boston Harbor for Cape Cod, he knows his destination, said Candy. But it’s the wind that decides the boat’s path.
Multiple organizations can decide on the benchmarks of a healthy community, he said, but finding creative ways to move forward is key.
Community revitalization can take decades, Candy said. That’s why he cautioned people to remember to also set smaller, short-term benchmarks so people always feel like they are moving forward and meeting goals.
Coalitions are tricky, acknowledged Candy, because people and all their baggage, their history together (or lack of history), personal agendas, and their wounds must sit together at the table.
It gets messy.
To find harmony does not mean eradicating the messiness, wounds, or agendas, said Candy. It’s about “creating a strong enough container to hold those tensions.”
Candy suggested entering a process with “beginner’s mind” by holding curiosity, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to remain open to the new.
Groups can use the practice of beginner’s mind to periodically see its process from a new perspective and ask if the path is still effective, he said.
He also encouraged his listeners to start perceiving group dynamics and goals as a system. Like systems in nature, they have the goal of health and move in the direction of the most energy.
In classic coalitions, he said, individuals jockey for their goals and agendas.
To demonstrate, Candy asked six participants to lock arms in the middle of the room. Then, as in classic coalitions, he asked people to silently pick a spot in the room — their goals — and then, without communicating, pull the group to their chosen spots.
In a style reminiscent of many meetings of town committees and nonprofit organizations in Brattleboro, the six participants pulled, shuffled, and slowly spun in a circle. No one reached their spot.
Next, Candy asked the participants to think of themselves as a system working in harmony.
“Feel where the energy is and where the system wants to move,” he said.
The six stood. At first, nothing happened. Then a sway, a shifting of weight, and the group moved in unison. Participants called out when the group reached a chosen spot. Then, silently the group swayed then moved again each time gaining momentum.
“How you come together will determine how successful you are,” he said.
If people engage in “habitual processes” then they will achieve “habitual outcomes,” Candy said. If people want new outcomes, they need new processes.
“How you gather together is as important as your goal,” Candy said. “If you don’t have harmony, you’re not going to be as effective.”