Promise Communities:
A Citizen Led Approach For Positive Changes For Children & Families

Imagine parents and other community members gathering together to determine the best way for their community to ensure that children are ready to enter kindergarten. Picture a vibrant, buzzing room, where people are working in small groups at tables with markers and chart paper, identifying approaches to support local children and families and building excitement for the process. This has been the reality in southern Vermont, where Pownal and “the Benningtons” (Bennington, Old Bennington, and North Bennington) have been identified as Promise Communities.


The Promise Community initiative recognizes that local communities have a unique capacity and responsibility to work together to improve these outcomes for children and families.

Promise Communities is a project under the Federal Early Learning Challenge Grant awarded to Vermont in 2014. There have been 3 cohorts of Promise Communities that will serve 24 distinct localities.

The Promise Community initiative is modeled, in part, after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. HCZ® started with a neighborhood block project in the 1990’s. It is aimed at providing comprehensive, critical support to children and families and reweaving the very fabric of community life. HCZ® set out to address not just some, but all of the issues children and families were facing using bold ambition, careful planning, and a strong infrastructure to address crumbling apartments, drug abuse, failing schools, violent crime, and chronic health problems. Now this approach developed by the Harlem Children’s Zone is a model for Vermont’s Promise Communities initiative.

Each Promise Community in Vermont identifies a community coalition, which trains together in Collective Impact, Strengthening Families, Community Cafés, Appreciative Inquiry, and Results Based Accountability. These tools are used to gather community input and identify a community plan, called a “Roadmap”. Each community then receives a grant to support initial implementation and evaluation of their plan.

The Vermont Promise Communities initiative has been developed to mobilize our communities. The focus is to support a high level of school readiness and success among our youngest citizens while also working toward the transformation of every aspect of the environment.

Two Communities:

The Bennington Region has two Promise Communities: Pownal and “the Benningtons”. Promise Community grants are awarded based on the level of need in the communities plus the readiness of the community to work together to change outcomes for children and their families.  Communities are asked to focus on four questions:

  • What is the essence of your community that makes it unique and strong?
  • What are three wishes for the children and families of your community?
  • What is the community plan for building a Promise Community coalition?
  • Whose voices in your community are often missing from the conversation, and how would you engage them?

Pownal and “the Benningtons” differ starting with the size of the population, Pownal 3,527 and Bennington 15,431. Bennington is the regional hub for Vermont State government and private agency services that help support people. Pownal does not have a bank, grocery store, or a Laundromat. Most of the residents travel out of Pownal for employment opportunities. Both communities are rich in citizen involvement and participation.




“the Benningtons”

Children birth to 6



Total Population



Public Elementary Schools



State Services



Mental Health Services


United Counseling Service

Head Start




Satellite Services

Full Service Hospital

Farmers Market



Public Housing







Building Community Involvement:

A great strength of both the Promise Communities in Bennington County is that they are citizen and parent lead.

Each Promise Community effort is led by a community coalition or steering committee. To create the steering committee in Pownal, Karen Gallese, a longtime resident and director at Oakhill, made contact with parents and other community members. Others joined the committee after the initial community cafés were conducted. Bennington’s Kayla Becker drew on the members of the Motherhood Collaborative. Three informational meetings were held prior to forming the steering committee. In both of these communities, the majority of the steering committee members are parent and citizens, rather than service providers. At this point, the BBF Regional Coordinator is the only representative of a statewide agency directly involved in the process.

A key aspect of building community involvement in Promise Community efforts is the Community Café process.

Community Cafés are used to gather information and develop community buy in. These conversations are hosted by parent leaders to increase community wisdom, build parent voice and facilitate action to improve lives for children. The structure for community cafés is:

  • Tables are set up for groups of 4 or 5. Each table has a large sheet of paper and markers.
  • There are usually 3 rounds with different questions developed by the steering committee.
  • The question at each table is the same. The discussion of each question is time limited. There is at least one recorder, but everyone has the opportunity to write down their own thoughts.
  • At the end of each round, one person remains at the table as the historian and everyone else joins a different table. The historian reports on what the table discussed.
  • The last task is the “harvest” a report out on the most significant points from every table.

Each of the steering committees held Community Cafés in different locations within their area. Pownal held 2 cafés each with more than 35 participants of all ages. Fourteen people came to both sessions. “The Benningtons” held 3 cafés one in downtown Bennington, one in North Bennington and one at a housing complex about 2 miles outside of the center. “The Benningtons” had between 25 and 30 people at each café. Both “the Benningtons” and Pownal had sitters and activities for the children.

Café Questions:



“The Benningtons”

Café #1

  • What are the strengths of our community?
  • What will make you feels more supported in our community?
  • What is a wish for our community?
  • List the ASSETS; offerings and qualities, of our community
  • Draw a map of a community that helps young children thrive
  • Compare the list of our current community assets/attributes and the drawing of an ideal childhood community. What is lacking?

Café #2

  • What are the purposes of a community center?
  • What are the necessary things that we need for a successful community center?
  • How could you help a community center in Pownal?
  • What is the purpose of a community space?
  • What are things that make you feel welcome/not welcome in a community space?
  • What are the things that we need to have a successful community space?
  • How can YOU help a community space in Bennington?

Café #3

  • Same Questions

People were really engaged in the process. The energy during the conversations was rich with ideas and excitement. Initially Pownal thought that they would ask the same questions at each of the cafés. However, as citizens were leaving many said that they would see us next week. So that the steering committee developed another set of questions for additional input.  

“The Benningtons” planned for 3 cafés because of its larger service area. Additional information and input from families was collected at 12 “mommy meetups,” an informal group open to all parents.

Developing A Road Map – strategic plan

Both communities identified the need for a neutral community space to support opportunities and programs for children and families. A place to build strong relationships and support.

Programming at the established centers must be research and evidenced based. It must be connected to the 5 protective factors: parental resilience, social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, and concrete supports in times of need. All of these leading to the development the social emotional competence of children.

There is still work to be done. Both communities have started to work on developing programming, job descriptions, budgets, and timelines. As well as determining a sustainability plan to continue the services once the grant funding is done in 2018.

Robin Stromgren
Bennington Regional Coordinator
Building Bright Futures



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