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In Cortez, Colorado, our former director of building and planning wanted to get residents excited about planning for our city’s future. We were preparing to update our comprehensive plan and revise our land use code—not exactly the stuff that draws crowds to public hearings in city hall at 7 p.m. on a weeknight.
Kirsten Sackett, who was building and planning director at the time, applied for a grant from the Orton Family Foundation to deploy a new method of community development called Community Heart & Soul. Cortez was one of nine projects awarded $100,000 to be a pilot study for Heart & Soul. We started the two-year project in 2012.
Cortez is a town of about 8,600 in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. The city is the seat for Montezuma County. Mesa Verde National Park, with cliff dwellings and other sites of the Ancient Pueblo people, is just down the road. Tribal lands of the Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo are also nearby. We are a service community for the rural region and a popular jumping off point for recreation in the mountains.
Cortez is more diverse and less affluent than the rest of Colorado. The population is about 70 percent white, and Native Americans and Hispanics account for about 30 percent of the population. Median household income is $39,141 compared to $59,448 for the state, according to U.S. Census data for 2014.
Like most towns, Cortez has its enthusiasts and detractors, old guard and newcomers, and sometimes there’s friction among the groups. One of the reasons a process like Heart & Soul was appealing to us was that there was increasing concern about divides in the community between all the groups that make Cortez a melting pot: ranchers, youth, recreation enthusiasts, the Ute Mountain Ute and Navajo tribes, and Hispanics. There was recognition that diversity was a strength and an asset, but without effort, divides could weaken us.
Cortez Heart & Soul aimed to get as many people as possible, from as many groups as possible, involved in community-based decision making as a way to create a vibrant and thriving community.
Success meant thinking outside the standard city-hall-public-hearing model to get broad and deep participation.
The project team used a range of approaches to get all demographic groups involved. We placed a special emphasis on engaging the voices of those who traditionally were underrepresented, such as low-income communities, ethnic minorities, youth, and seniors. That often meant building trust first. In the Hispanic community, for example, that meant working through churches to initiate a connection. Other outside-the-box activities for community engagement included things like the following:
- English and Spanish surveys were placed at specific locations and mailed. Surveys reached all demographic groups but seniors were especially familiar with the format and more apt to mail them in.
- Community conversations. Dozens of conversations were facilitated to capture specific demographic or interest groups. Examples include the local food pantry, the day labor center, and the coffee shop.
- Block parties, designed with input from the intended attendees. In the Hispanic community, that meant honoring requests to include representatives from immigration, the police chief, translators (to assist English-speakers in understanding Spanish), school teachers and the principal to hold parent/teacher conferences.
- Art shows. Disposable cameras were handed out for residents to participate in a “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” photo exhibition that was used to spark conversations.
It meant hearing from people who didn’t typically participate in local governance, such as youth, adults with young children, and members of the Hispanic and Native American communities. It meant gathering stories and quantifying them to distill common themes of what matters most to residents. And it meant going back to residents to check in and ask them if we were on track with our findings.
Did it work? In short, this community wealth-building model changed the way we do business in Cortez. The project:
- Opened communication with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, who contributed to the design of a gateway sign at the southern entrance to town, nearest to their tribal lands. Having the tribe participate in design that included culturally relevant symbols was a way to honor and respect them.
- Opened the door for better communication with Hispanic residents, previously a missing voice in local government. This led to greater trust, including a better relationship with law enforcement.
- Got youth involved by adding full voting seats on the advisory boards of parks and recreation, golf, and the library. Students were given a graffiti wall in the skateboard park and graffiti incidents in town were reduced dramatically. Video.
- Established a new way for developers to do business by encouraging them to meet, discuss, and resolve differences with neighbors well in advance of public hearings. Video.
- Created a plan for the city’s main street, a state highway, that was accepted by the state, setting a precedent for collaboration between the city and state transportation agency.
What happened in the other eight communities that participated in the pilot project with the Orton Family Foundation? The foundation commissioned an evaluation by research designer and analyst Doug Easterling, a professor of social sciences and health policy at Wake Forest School of Medicine. His team found that the transformation that happened in Cortez was echoed, to varying degrees, in the eight other communities that won Heart & Soul grants. He said the planning process was unique:
“Most of these community planning initiatives focus on visioning, strategizing, and creating action steps. These come out of a planning process with a facilitated group of people around a table. It’s very formal and structured. It’s contained. Heart & Soul comes up with a vision by looking at the past and what’s worth preserving and looking forward. Information is gathered in such a decentralized way through gathering stories and then analyzing them to make Heart & Soul statements. That level of engagement I’ve never really seen before, though people say they do it.”
As Easterling saw it, what all the communities had in common is that they were on a trajectory of some sort based on factors such as politics, cultural shifts, and demographics. Heart & Soul introduced a resident-led process that enabled the communities to get intentional about setting their own course and asserting control over their own destiny.
That certainly was the case in Cortez, as engaging the community became the new way to do business and, in the process, barriers between groups came down.
As Easterling concluded: “These things happened because Orton came to town and didn’t just do it to the community. They got the community to do it to themselves.”
Shane Hale is city manager of Cortez, Colorado. This article was provided with the assistance of Leslie Wright, Orton Family Foundation communications associate.