The remarkable citizen-driven revitalization of the city of Buckhannon in Upshur County is one of the great community development success stories in West Virginia.
And the engine behind much of that energy is a simple gathering of locals that occurs every Thursday in an upstairs room of a main street restaurant.
Since 2009, this regular Thursday meeting of Create Buckhannon has brought together a diverse crowd of Buckhannon-ites to break bread, talk, and share ideas about things they can do to make their city a better place to live. Projects are proposed, ideas change and take new shape, some fade away and others gain momentum. Support groups are formed, opportunities for collaboration arise, action is taken.
The great thing about a regular community conversation is that it doesn’t have to be the same people week in week out. If certain people can’t make it one week, that’s okay. The meeting will carry on and new ideas will come to the table.
Many of Buckhannon’s signature achievements of the past few years were born of these informal gatherings, including the creation of Jawbone Park and its weekly market, placement of LED lighting in the main street, a summer music series, and local biking and walking routes.
So successful has Create Buckhannon’s regular community conversation been that others are starting to adopt the model in their city or town.
And we think that’s a great idea. A regular community conversation is easy to organize, creates a mechanism for collaboration and reporting, and opens the door to all kinds of people to get involved in the development of their community.
So, to help your neck of the woods start its own regular community conversation, here’s 5 Tips from Create Buckhannon.
5 Tips on How to Start a Regular Community Conversation That Works
- Make it a Priority.
Weekly meetings allow you to build momentum. If you find an excuse to skip a week here and there, energy can start to wane. The same happens if you have the meetings too infrequently. The great thing about a regular community conversation is that it doesn’t have to be the same people week in week out. If certain people can’t make it one week, that’s okay. The meeting will carry on and new ideas will come to the table.
- Everyone’s ideas are important, they all need to be listened to.
It’s important to publicize that meetings open to anyone, and to encourage the ideas of others at the table. You never know where a new idea will take you, even if it seems strange at first.
- Have a good facilitator to guide the conversation.
Like at every public meeting, there are always some people who will do most of the talking. While all input is good, it’s important to not let “bullies” dominate the discussion as this will discourage new people from attending. A respected person to act as facilitator is crucial to ensuring the meetings don’t just become a soapbox for a small group of the most vocal folks.
- People need to get up from the table and go do something.
Identify concrete action steps, and report back on them at the next meeting. These only need to be small tasks (“ask the city manager whether she knows who owns that building…”), but by creating and ticking off action steps you keep momentum going, and you let everyone see that the weekly conversation does actually result in movement.
- Start with small, visible projects and keep on moving forward.
It’s not how great the effort, it’s how long you keep at it. Particularly when your community conversation is still in its infancy, find concrete things you can achieve relatively easily. This does wonders for morale, and it’s amazing how many new people you’ll attract to the table once they see change happening in the community.
Extra Tip Number 6 is: Food! Nothing encourages socialization more than sharing a meal. Plus, by making it a lunchtime meeting, people who are at work can kill two birds with one stone. (And, your local restaurants will appreciate the business!)
A few other golden insights that drive the Create Buckhannon effort:
- “A healthy community is one that can take risks when things are going well.”
- “Everyone is important – it’s not just about whose idea it was.”
- “Create opportunities for individuals to behave in a collaborative manner.”
- “Be inclusive, not exclusive.”
- “Keep it positive.”
- “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Sounds like great advice to me. What are you waiting for?