Building Public Understanding
New England Education Initiative
Since 2015, I have been working with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Everyday Democracy, and Great Schools Partnership to provide technical assistance to school districts across New England to build their capacity for effective community engagement.
New England schools are moving towards more personalized learning experiences to create maximum relevance and equitable outcomes for all students, regardless of socio-economic, ethnic, or racial backgrounds. In this emerging system, it is more important than ever for students to have a meaningful voice in their education, and for families, community members and schools to develop the network of relationships and partnerships that will make it possible for all students to have the learning experiences they need to be prepared for today’s world.
During the start-up phase of this initiative, I was the project manager for the technical assistance team. I continue to work with students, educators, and community leaders in several New England states to design and implement a variety of engagement strategies including student dialogues, community conversations, parent forums, surveys, and more.
Creating Community Solutions, USA
National Dialogue on Mental Health
On January 16, 2013, President Barack Obama called for a “national conversation to increase understanding about mental health.” Creating Community Solutions is an important part of the National Dialogue. It gives Americans a chance to learn more about mental health issues – from each other and from research. People who participate in these community conversations will determine if mental health is an important issue for their community and will discuss issues related to the mental health of young people. They will also decide how they might take action to improve mental health in their families, schools, and communities.
I served as Community Liaison for this initiative, consulting with individuals and groups across the country who wished to organize conversations about mental health. I also played a lead role in producing Text Talk Act, an innovative experience that combines social media, text messaging and face to face dialogue. Through Text Talk Act, approximately 50,000 young people across the country have engaged in conversations about mental health.
Heart & Soul of Essex, Essex Junction, VT
Community Visioning & Planning
The Town of Essex and Village of Essex Junction are overlapping municipalities grappling with how their futures fit together. For more than 50 years, residents of the two municipalities have debated the merits of merging or separating. Spearheaded by a network of local partners, residents of the Town (from inside and outside the Village) undertook a joint visioning process to find common ground. The question is not whether to merge or separate, but how they can work together to lay the groundwork for an enduring future.
I co-coordinated this two-year initiative which engaged 1,000 community members in innovative ways to uncover common values, create a shared vision and identify actions to move forward.
This process created a reservoir of energy, good will, and common ground that has inspired many positive community changes in the years following the initiative. The town plan, which was built around the community values identified through the Heart & Soul process, won 2016 Plan of the Year from the Vermont Planners Association and the Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association. Multiple school districts in the village and town and the neighboring town of Westford voted to merge. Other enterprises were inspired by the Heart & Soul work, including Essex Eats Out, a weekly free community dinner, and most recently, the opening of several coffee shops in town (a key desire expressed by Heart & Soul participants) including Nest Coffee Shop and Bakery in the village. heartandsoulofessex.org
The Future of Weybridge School, Weybridge, VT
Community Conversation About Education
Small declines in student enrollment caused the tax rate in Weybridge to rise by a whopping 15%. Some residents favored closing the school. Others were committed to keeping the school open. Tensions were rising and almost everyone was directing their frustration towards the local school board for failing to come up with a solution. Feeling a sense of urgency, Weybridge volunteered to be the pilot community for a public engagement process I designed for the Addison County Supervisory Union governance study committee. Over eighty Weybridge residents participated in a series of conversations and an action forum about education quality, cost and governance.
The community conversations transformed the situation. Residents gained an understanding of the complexity of the issues and began to work side by side with the school board to find solutions. A school policy was changed to allow students from outside Weybridge to attend the school. Several new students enrolled. Word about Weybridge’s excellent schools spread and new families began to arrive. In the years following this work, Weybridge welcomed nineteen new students to its school, the tax rate has decreased significantly, and residents and town officials have come together to successfully address a range of challenges facing the community.
“We came out of the sessions with a reasonable, flexible list of options with which we could move forward.” - Participant
Downtown Revitalization, Essex Junction, VT
Community Visioning & Planning
Vacant storefronts, broken windows and increasing drug activity in the historic downtown spurred local residents to take action. I worked with residents and village officials to host a large public forum to build momentum and activate the community. The forum sparked several citizen-led groups to take action and within a remarkably short period of time, downtown has been transformed with a thriving farmers market, an event series, flowers, and occupied storefronts.
"Sue rocks! She can get the right mix of people together to do just about anything." - Participant in All Aboard for Downtown Essex Junction Public Forum, February, 2010
"You have done truly remarkable work on behalf of our community…It takes a very special person with a very special skill set to coordinate this effort the way you have, and there are many of us who are very grateful." - Chris Kenny
Downtown Revitalization, Biddeford, Maine
Community Visioning & Planning
The Heart of Biddeford, a downtown revitalization organization, won one of several “Heart & Soul” grants from the Orton Family Foundation. I worked with the community to design a public engagement process to carry forward the themes that emerged from the “Heart & Soul” storytelling telling work, identify citizen priorities for downtown planning and position the community to make a successful transition from values and visioning work to designing and implementing a master plan for downtown Biddeford.
"Please know that we are deeply indebted to your hard work and dedication to making the forum the success it was." - Holli Andrews, Heart of Biddeford
Visiting Nurses Association, Chittenden County, VT
The VNA has successfully served the community for over 100 years. Due to demographic trends, new technology and health care reform, the VNA recognized the need to reexamine its way of doing business through an inclusive strategic planning process. Karyn Vogel and I designed and facilitated a process that engaged over 100 staff, board members, clients, family members and volunteers in an in-depth conversation about the future of the organization. The process built trust and relationships among participants, energized the board, and positioned the VNA to activate its very experienced and dedicated staff to meet the challenges of the “Brave New World” of home health care.
“Sue is a smart, skilled and most engaging professional—and a remarkably quick study…working with her means your outcomes will be better than if you worked alone…Sue has wonderful ways to make your best efforts even better.” - Church Hindes, President & CEO, VNA