Community Heart & Soul brought residents together, then helped them take action
On a balmy, blue-sky August night in 2019, a thousand residents of Thomaston, Georgia, crowded into downtown’s Courthouse Square for a summertime concert. There’s a Fleetwood Mac tribute band that everyone’s dancing to—kids and grandmas, couples dipping and twirling, women boogying with their friends. And somewhere in the mix is a chalkboard that wants to know what everyone’s thinking. “What do you love about our community?” it asks in luxurious script. Around it, the answers have piled up in multicolored chalk: Family atmosphere. The school. All the friendly people. I love that everyone knows everyone.
For two years, that chalkboard, or some version of it, traveled everywhere in Thomaston and its surrounding Upson County, a community of 27,000 about an hour and a half south of Atlanta. Every parade, every block party, every public event, there was the chalkboard asking thought-provoking questions. “What are your hopes and concerns? What are your ideas for the future?” Residents of all ages and ethnicities would sidle up and scrawl their answers. “I [heart] how it feels like home,” someone wrote.
Thomaston lost its textile mills in 2000. Just like that 5,000 jobs disappeared—a blow for a town of 9,000 about 65 miles south of Atlanta. Luke Haney, a 21-year-old who works at the local newspaper, remembers how his grandparents, who’d worked in the mills their entire life, were suddenly forced to retire. “A lot of people struggled and a lot of people left,” he says. Two decades later the community was still shaking off the aftermath. One resident described Thomaston as mired in “a mill-less depression.”
It was time to move forward. In 2018, Neal Trice, the CEO of the local electric cooperative, Upson EMC, heard that Georgia EMC was promoting something called Community Heart & Soul. Neal thought, “Why not bring it to Thomaston? See what happens?”
Created by Vermont-based nonprofit Community Heart & Soul, its namesake two-year program is designed to help places, particularly economically struggling ones like Thomaston, start making progress. Its key component: Listening. Hard. To everyone. Jennifer Greathouse Rogers, a lifelong Thomaston resident who coordinated her town’s venture into Community Heart & Soul, organized an extensive listening tour. She brought the omnipresent chalkboard into existence and towed it to events all over town. Volunteers stepped up to canvass neighborhoods, staff booths, and ask everyone what they loved about “T-Up” and what change they wanted to see there. It was simple, really, but “asking people what they wanted—that had never been done before,” says Rogers.
Community Heart & Soul was powerfully inclusive. To make sure that everyone in town had a voice, volunteers carefully tracked demographics like age and race, then brainstormed ways to talk to the missing demos, even creating events like a Game On Arcade Day to reach them. One volunteer, Roger Pinion, interviewed an 11-year-old girl about what she wanted to see come to Thomaston. “She wanted a Burger King in her neighborhood,” he says. “That was her answer.” For Pinion, who moved to Upson County to open a bed and breakfast in 2013, “it was like a turning point in Heart & Soul for me” to recognize that even the most vulnerable children got to share their opinions. For the first time, they were being heard.
Jenny Robbins, a Community Heart & Soul Coach who works for Georgia EMC, recalls participating in a story circle that coincided with Thomaston’s annual Emancipation Celebration, one of the longest-running in the country. Historically, the event was not celebrated by the entire community. Because of Community Heart & Soul, it became a shared experience. “We had the luxury of sitting down with people that remembered way before integration, and they shared some of the most incredible stories with us,” Robbins says. “Because we intentionally gathered their stories, connections were made between people who would otherwise have never met. Those connections led to action items that matter most to everyone.”
Ultimately Thomaston-Upson’s Community Heart & Soul program connected with 6,770 residents, in person and online. Their suggestions became a list of 20 action items for the town, from a Chick-Fil-A to a downtown farmers market.
Then COVID hit. A few weeks after Thomaston-Upson was honored in the Georgia legislature for being the first community in Georgia to complete the Community Heart & Soul program, and just two days after the program’s closing celebration at the 1927 Ritz Theater downtown, Georgia went on lockdown. One month after that, an F3 tornado the size of 12 football fields spiraled through Upson County, damaging more than 4 dozen buildings. In the chaos, Rogers worried that the momentum created by Community Heart & Soul would wither.
She needn’t have. Those two years of getting residents to talk together about what they loved about their community and how they could make it better happened to make them resilient. The good feeling and connection across demographics carried them through the disasters. It also empowered them. Recently, residents started complaining about litter. Where residents used to leave problems like that up to local government leaders to solve, this time Community Heart & Soul volunteers simply said, “Let’s go pick up trash.” Within a few Saturdays, they had gathered 3,500 pounds of litter. “It was a Heart & Soul thing,” says Rogers. “Simple things like that, we can just take hold and do to improve our community to have pride of place.”
The 20-item wish list that town residents came up with has put a lot of irons in the fire. A Chick-Fil-A opened in town in June 2020. A farmers market opened in a former cattle sale barn. Neal Trice, the CEO of Upson EMC, has mapped out 13 miles of walking and biking trails to connect the Civic Center, the schools, the parks, and Sprewell Bluff Park. “Every week businesses are calling me and saying, ‘Does this seem like something that the community would back?’, because they know that we actually did the work to find out what people want,” says Rogers. They’re playing the long game, another tenet of Community Heart & Soul.
A town like Thomaston is populated with people who were born and raised there and wouldn’t contemplate going anywhere else. They maybe just forgot why for a little bit. When the mill jobs went away, so did a chunk of Thomaston-Upson’s community pride. Now that’s changing, and the sense of community is perhaps the most important result of the Community Heart & Soul program. Thomaston is a community that’s always believed it was on the edge of something great. Now it’s working to create its own greatness. “We are not giving up,” says Rogers.
Want to bring Community Heart & Soul to your town? Apply for a $10,000 Community Heart & Soul Seed Grant to get started. Learn more at: www.communityheartandsoul.org/seed-grants
By: Melody Warnick
Freelance writer Melody Warnick’s book This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are is a practical guide to loving the place where you live that’s been featured in the New York Times, Time magazine, Fast Company, Psychology Today, and others.