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Community Is No Cliché: It Works… the Burlington Way

The people of Burlington, Vermont have discovered “we are better together.” See how a culture of engagement, a cohesive civic infrastructure of connected people, organizations, and programs really does build community.

"Question" by Madeline Weaver, age 13, a Graffiti Removal Team volunteer from Charlotte, VT. In her words: "For the design of my panel… I included a quote from Dr. King, which I thought really represented the idea behind community and working together." Madeline's panel is one of 13 youth art pieces that adorns a neighborhood fence in downtown Burlington, VT.
Imagine this familiar scene from an American city: three young people, aged 15 to 24, get caught vandalizing downtown buildings with graffiti. The police department takes charge of removing the graffiti and fines the perpetrators. Nothing else is done until it happens again, which it almost certainly will. Many times.

Now, instead, imagine this: A team of local volunteers removes the graffiti, and those responsible meet with a panel of other volunteers. Together, they decide how to address the harm crime does to their community.

As a result, the youth involved end up working with an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer to create a “Community Art Space.” There they can legally display graffiti art, engage other youth in restorative practices and community development such as tree planting or block clean-ups, and at the same time build neighborhood pride and beautify the city. A property owner agrees to donate her fence, which has continually been ‘tagged’ by unwanted graffiti, to the project. Several youth agencies, churches, businesses and community members contributed labor and materials to execute the project.

This is a true story from Burlington, Vermont. It’s one outcome of the city’s Center for Community and Neighborhoods (CCAN), which is quietly co-revolutionizing the way government, businesses and citizens work together. CCAN is a comprehensive city program whose unique spectrum of initiatives inspire and support community participation, citizen action, and responsive municipal government.

Each year more than 4,000 citizens take up the center’s challenge to shape municipal plans and policies, allocate city resources, resolve conflicts, heal the damage caused by crime, and revitalize neighborhoods. More than merely opening the doors of city government, CCAN’s initiatives involve intentional outreach to underrepresented groups—including families living in poverty, people of color, newly resettled refugees, and immigrants—as central to strategies that strengthen social networks and empower citizens.

CCAN programs fall into two broad categories.
Neighborhood and Community programs foster civic engagement and support community members, including training for grassroots leaders, celebrations of neighborhood history and progress, and community forums, in which neighbors solve problems, share knowledge and experience, envision future developments and weigh in on city priorities.

Community Justice Center volunteers engage offenders in community service and reparations, assist the victims of crime, repair vandalism, mediate disputes between neighbors, and support the successful reentry into the community of offenders from prison.

The Parallel Justice Project illustrates the Center’s approach. While in the typical criminal justice system, roughly 97 percent of the resources go toward prosecuting, sentencing, and isolating offenders, the Parallel Justice Project expands support for crime victims. It connects citizens, businesses, local leaders, law enforcement, and state agencies to increase and coordinate resources for them. The Project has also created a public education campaign as well as a commission that hears directly from victims of crime and works to improve governmental responses to their needs.

The results? In 2007 alone, Parallel Justice Project supported and assisted 1,310 victims of crime, with help from 25 local businesses who offered discounted services and donated products.

Through all of its initiatives, the Center for Community and Neighborhoods demonstrates the power of civic engagement. The many innovative projects of CCAN produce measurable results and offer valuable models for other city governments. The key result here, however, lies in the bigger picture. CCAN fosters and supports a network of people, organizations, and programs that operate together to build community. Each part is strong, but the whole is far stronger.

Tapping the commitment and ingenuity of citizens has brought results throughout Burlington:

  • New traffic-calming policies, with community participation in decision-making, are making neighborhood streets safer.

  • Neighborhood Planning Assemblies routinely review and steer City budget allocations including street paving and sidewalk construction, parks, and Community Development Block Grant Funds.

  • CCAN-facilitated Study Circles on Racism, which involved more than 300 citizens, have elevated anti-racism work to a high priority in the city, leading the Burlington Police Department to recruit and mentor officers reflecting the city’s growing diversity.

  • In the past two years, CCAN’s Graffiti Removal Team—with more than 250 volunteers and 40 organizations and businesses participating—has cleaned some 1000 graffiti tags from public and private property.

  • Vacant buildings have largely disappeared, thanks to a new ordinance and stronger enforcement developed through citizen-driven CCAN efforts in cooperation with the Planning and Zoning Department.

  • Over the past year, the volunteer Restorative Justice Panels of CCAN’s Community Justice Center have engaged 248 offenders in community service, repairing damaged property, and paying back money to crime victims.

CCAN also supports and trains nearly 50 full-time AmeriCorps*VISTA organizers, who leverage nearly half a million dollars annually to help community organizations to initiate new programs and expand their capacity. One such recent VISTA start-up is the Healthy City program, educating at-risk teens in sustainable organic farming, marketing and related job skills. The teens run a 12-acre farm that sells organic produce to Burlington schools and the local hospital, and donates produce to food distribution centers.

Our results offer valuable models for other city governments.
CCAN’s unshakable faith in the power of an engaged citizenry, its ability to forge strong partnerships amongst unlikely partners, and its drive to involve groups normally excluded from public dialogue allow the Center to bring a critical range of perspectives to bear to improve public outcomes. CCAN has demonstrated how truly transformative change occurs when decision making is collaborative and equitable.

Perhaps most important, Burlington has developed a culture of engagement, a cohesive civic infrastructure of connected people, organizations, and programs who build community together. We are better together.


Yiota Ahladas is Director of Burlington's Center for Community and Neighborhoods. Yiota has extensive experience working with nonprofit organizations, low-income communities, and local governments locally and abroad. Ben Sachs-Hamilton grew up in Burlington, and is currently a junior in the College of Letters at Wesleyan University. This article first appeared on Frances Moore Lappé's website: Democracy's Edge, March 2008, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the authors.

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