Where, When, and Who?

A friend “just happened” to share this article about “how poverty in rural America is changing.”  As I read it, though, I didn’t see changes; I saw trend lines that have been going on, at least in These Parts, for decades.  The Big Local Employer shuts down or scales back; people “who can” leave for better opportunities somewhere else; and there’s a pervasive sense of … not exactly despair, but something more like powerlessness and apathy.  There’s “nothing to do” for young people, so they find ways to pass the empty hours.  Some people get mad, some get sad and depressed; some leave, some stay; some try to control their kids and keep them out of trouble, while others are lost in their own sadness and apathy.  “I can’t stay, but I can’t leave” … or “I don’t want to stay, but I don’t know how to leave.”  You hear that a lot.

Of course, I’ve said that myself … not so much about the Particular Town where I live, but about the factory-model school system that I worked in for so long.  Was it important for me to feel the despair, up close and personal, before I could work with folks to take action?

In any “small and dying” town, there are a few people and programs, like the community center in the article, trying to turn things around for the next generation. But that’s hard, frustrating work, made harder and more frustrating by the inevitable failures and the lack of gratitude, the lack of funding and the lack of respect.  Was it important for me to feel that frustration and failure, too?

As Don reminded me on Google+, some little towns have remarkable schools that are making a difference, working with, not for their communities.  But that’s difficult work, especially when those schools are “under the gun” with Mandates From On High for higher test scores and fidelity to the Shiny New Program and all the other things that Great Powers Indeed tend to decree.  If you work in a school in a “small and dying” little town, it’s a lot easier to hand out the worksheets and hope for the best … or to blame the environment and count seconds till retirement, just like you would in a bigger school in a bigger town.

The emotional landscape of “small and dying” towns is awfully similar to that of factory-model schools, especially the ones where Ms. X and Mr. Y spend their days moaning about worse and worse every year and those bad, lazy kids and those horrible parents.  Why is that suddenly clear, and how does the clarity affect what I’ll be doing in the weeks and months to come?

Doing things for “those poor unfortunate souls?”  Not what I’m called to do. Changing “small and dying” schools from the inside?  Not what I’m called to do, either.  No need to ask where, when, and who.

But as I’ve wrestled with questions of why and what over the past few years, I kept seeing a role for myself, and for joyful learning communities that build meaningful things together, in towns in These Parts that get labeled and dismissed as “small and dying.”  I just can’t show up with All The Answers, and I can’t be the Outside Expert with the fool-proof plan.  Why?  Because nobody has All The Answers. Because I’m not an Expert. Because no plans are fool-proof.

And because what I am called to do is to work with, not for other members of a joyful learning community as we figure things out and build meaningful things together.  Some of those joyful communities exist online, using a collaborative co-creation model to learn Latin together as they build the Tres Columnae Project.  But some are face-to-face … and some of those, I’ve been realizing, will form in these labeled and dismissed as “small and dying.”

All of a sudden, I can ask and even answer questions of where and when and who!

When you look closely, there’s a lot of life and a lot of potential in those “small and dying” towns … just like the life, potential, creativity, and passion that often lie just under the surface of young people who get labeled and dismissed as “bad and lazy” in factory-model schools.  Look around any “small and dying” town, and you’ll find young people who can’t leave yet, some who want to leave and come back, and more than a few who don’t really want to leave at all.  Bring some of them together, in a comfortable and welcoming physical space, at a time of day when there’s “nothing to do” and “nowhere to go,” and you might “just happen” to start conversations about things they love … and things they’d love to change.  Pick a simple-looking change, work together to make it happen … and you “just happened” to change a mindset of powerlessness and apathy into something very different.

Where, when, and who.

All you need is a welcoming space and a few simple tools to start out … a team,place, and some time, as I put it a year or so ago.  But it’s hard to ask or answer  where, when, and who if you’re not clear about why, what, and how.

Till recently, I was clear about why, but I couldn’t articulate what or how … and I guess that’s why people were supportive and cordial and interested, but opportunities didn’t show up.  They’re showing up now … and I’m grateful, but I’m not in a hurry and I’m not running from the Old and Familiar the way I tried to do a year or two ago.

When, where, and who?  Soon, in a Particular Little Town I’m not quite ready to name, with a group of young people (and their families) that I haven’t yet met … but we’ll meet when the time is right.  I wonder what other adventures and discoveries await in the next few days!

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Published in: on August 7, 2014 at 6:04 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. On a smaller scale, this is speaking to me. Knowing the why/what/how is an essential foundation for anything, really. I’ve been down physically and mentally lately. I lost my why and what. I’m trying to find them again.

    • I’m really glad that it helped! Losing your why and what is really painful … been there, done that! I hope you find them again soon, and when you do, I hope they’ll be stronger and clearer than ever before.

  2. […] a great place to begin when you’re doing something new and important.  Satia’s comment got me thinking about […]


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