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Patron in the City: Gillian Sewake

Patron in the City: Gillian Sewake

At Patronicity, we believe that passionate individuals can spur change in their communities. We recently spoke with Gillian Sewake to learn more about her passion for community and how she serves as a Patron in the City.

Gillian Sewake, the Director of Discover St. Johnsbury, has a love for her community that has been the driving force behind many initiatives in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. In May 2022, Gillian launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for a free, outdoor, music event series. One of the first Better Places Vermont projects to launch a crowdfunding campaign through Patronicity, #GetDowntown St. J raised over $4,000 to fill the downtown with art, community, and fun.

By reaching their crowdfunding goal, the project unlocked a 2:1 matching grant from the Better Places Vermont program, empowering Vermonters to create inclusive and vibrant public places serving Vermont's designated downtowns, village centers, new town centers, or neighborhood development areas.The program, led by the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) in partnership with the Vermont Department of Health, the Vermont Community Foundation, and Patronicity, supports community-led projects that create, revitalize, or activate public spaces that bring people together to build welcoming and thriving communities across Vermont.

At Patronicity, we believe that passionate individuals can spur change in their communities. We refer to those individuals as Patrons in the City, dedicating their time, sweat, and tears to building vibrant communities. We recently spoke with Gillian to learn more about her passion for community and how she serves as a Patron in the City.

St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series full of people watching a guitarist on stage
St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series

Patronicity: Tell us about yourself. What is your role in the community?

Gillian: My name is Gillian Sewake and I am the Director of Discover St. Johnsbury, which works to stimulate and promote the vitality of St. Johnsbury's cultural, commercial, and community resources.

The intersection of those three “c's”--culture, commerce, and community--is where I get the most excited about my work. Whether that's creating a new event series that centers free and accessible arts experiences downtown, or helping new businesses connect and thrive, or telling the story of what makes our town unique, I love to work on projects that improve civic engagement, economic development, and community pride.

I grew up here, and I remember a time when stories that celebrated St. Johnsbury were hard to come by. It has been a joy to return and see so much energy and momentum, and to be a part of fulfilling the promise that St. Johnsbury has always held, that of a creative, vibrant, and unique community.

St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series with older couple's dancing together in the street.
St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series

Patronicity: Why do you love where you live?

Gillian: St. Johnsbury is a very small town of 7,500, located in a hyper-rural community called the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. And, we are also a hub for creativity and ingenuity where you can spend a long weekend eating, drinking, shopping, and taking in the sights. Here in St. J, you can find both quaint, rural charm and cosmopolitan experiences side by side. People care about each other, and our community, and that shows in a downtown that's filling up with creative, independent businesses, eateries, and shops.

Patronicity: Tell us about your community and why your project is important to the community.

Gillian: In the last few decades, St. Johnsbury has faced the same challenges that you'll find in many other rural downtowns: loss of small businesses, outmigration, and blight. But we're a resilient community, and slow, deliberate efforts to turn things around all started to tip the needle in the right direction.

Still, community members and visitors had gotten out of the habit of gathering downtown. In September 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a unique partnership formed between my organization, the Town of St. Johnsbury, and our regional arts organization Catamount Arts to bring people together to experience arts and community, within the strict social distancing requirements of the time. The experience working together to create that series was so positive that once the pandemic eased, we were ready to take it up a notch.

Cut to summer 2022 and the launch of the St. J Final Fridays event series, supported by Patronicity crowdfunding. These events took place on the final Friday of each summer month, and were full-on street fair with free food, fun, and amazing arts experiences, culminating in a Levitt AMP St. Johnsbury Music Series event that turned the street into a pop-up concert venue in the evening.

Although we used ideas from other communities' First Friday arts events, our Final Fridays totally changed the game for what downtown events could look like in St. Johnsbury, particularly with the efforts we put into making it welcoming and inclusive for all.

St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series people gather on the street talking to one another.
St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series

Patronicity: How has this project changed your community for the better?

Gillian: The accessibility of the St. J Final Fridays series is what made it so special. Locating the series within our walkable downtown, filled with entirely free experiences, meant that we could ensure that all community members could take part in the fun.

One story that demonstrates this: A community member lives with her family right in our downtown where the Final Fridays series takes place. I asked her if she was planning to come and she shared that she couldn't because she always felt bad that her son would ask to participate in things she couldn't pay for. I started to list off all the free things (like free gelato, face painting, popcorn, giveaways, cookies, live portrait drawing) she could take part in and her face lit up. That Friday, I saw her with her entire family on the street until the very end of the night (likely way past her son's bedtime!), enjoying every drop of what the event had to offer.

St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series where a child plays with sidewalk chalk.
St. Johnsbury Final Fridays event series

Patronicity: What inspired you to get involved and build this project?

Gillian: It's really all about the collaboration. Our team brings different organizational capacities and assets to the table. We all put so much hard work into making this series a success. From the early prototypes in 2020, we got hooked on working together to achieve this positive change for the town. And, the town has responded with so much positivity! We can't wait to do it again.

Patronicity: How has the community responded to the project and your efforts to build a vibrant community?

Gillian: Like I said, it has been an overwhelmingly positive response. To quote an Instagram commenter responding to the event: "Made a core memory last night! Thank you for all your hard work and dedication to making these wonderful days and nights a reality!" We're riding that great momentum and already planning the next series in 2023.

Patronicity: If someone wanted to become more involved in their community, what advice would you give them?

Gillian: If there's something you care about in your town, find out what organizations or community groups are working on it and just reach out! Do you know how thrilled I would be to get a cold call or email offering to volunteer for an event, or serve on a programming committee? Go on, make that call and make someone's day.

Patronicity: What could other cities learn from your community or project?

Gillian: Make sure you remove as many barriers as possible to ensure that all community members can participate. I know that not all events can be free, but if you are trying to make something free and inclusive, really invest the time to make it so.

Look at whether some activities at your free event cost money, and try to cover those costs. Look at what transportation barriers exist, and try to make sure your event lines up with a time that everyone can get there, whether or not they have a car. Look at cultural barriers that keep people from different racial, ethnic, or political backgrounds from feeling safe and welcomed at your event, and try to remove as many of them as possible. In a time with increasing polarization and inequality, it's imperative that everyone who works in community and economic development work as hard as we can to create reasons for people of different backgrounds and experiences to share space and share joy.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

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