Program Director Jackie Verley and Executive Director Lindsey Halman began working with youth and adults at the First Branch Unified School District last year to help them create a refreshed mission and vision that captured the  shared  identity as a newly merged community. The following is an interview with Jackie about UP’s partnership with the newly formed district. 

Tell me a little bit about this team and what its goals are:

First Branch is a recently unified school district inside of White River Supervisory Union in Vermont, and this project is centered around their new identity. They have a campus in Chelsea (middle school and pre-K) and one in Tunbridge, which is kindergarten through 4th grade. We did a quick Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) cycle project with them last spring about their first year as a unified district. The team experienced and then facilitated a chalk talk about what community members saw as strengths and challenges at the elementary and middle schools. They had a celebration event at the end of the year where they shared what was found. 

This year, we are doing an expanded version of the project, and it is more about the district’s identity: who they are, what they care about, and what matters. The team collected over a thousand words from students, teachers, administration and community to answer the question, “what does community mean to you”? At the third retreat this year we put those words, as well as drawings from elementary school students, together in affinity maps. They came up with several big themes, such as “supportive”, “fun” and “curious.” The next step for the team is to hold a community dialogue event in December, using the themes to create a mission/vision statement, facilitating small group circles to get feedback on the statement, as well as sharing concerns that came up in the data, and asking for possible solutions for those concerns that they see. They will also determine what the next step is in creating the First Branch shared identity. 

What is a highlight from working with this team? 

A highlight has been how engaged the team has been in an emergent process. They have been up for getting into groups, sorting through data, and planning for facilitation and events. I am impressed with how willing they are to be part of a dynamic process that is wholly dependent on community engagement and participation. Bridging that gap between the two buildings has been another highlight; the middle schoolers love facilitating activities with the elementary school students! 

What has been a challenge for this team?

Similar to other schools, one challenge is supporting our adult partners’ to move things forward between our retreats. Our adult partners are essential, and they have a lot going on in their day to day as school staff. Lindsey and I work together to create agendas and scripts for facilitating, and send reminders with all the information from retreats so that the team can take their next steps. 

What is your favorite facilitator pro tip? 

I would say to always try new games! Generally, everybody laughs and has a good time together when trying something new. As with all teams they need community building, but especially with processes whose outcomes can be foggy and or overwhelming, it’s great to build in games into every retreat. These activities put our brains in a different place and open us up to new possibilities!