I have a cringe-worthy group photo from my high school days. I am at teen leadership conference, and for some assuredly good reasons -- that escape me now -- I wore mismatched Converse high tops, boxer shorts as pantaloons, an old tweet jacket, my Mohawk, and a pair of gargantuan pink-tinted glasses. I look equal parts ludicrous and unreasonably proud. But I was "all in" -- fully present and engaged in the work of the group and confident in my opinions. Youth possesses daring and authenticity that often depreciates as we age.
I remembered this photo the other day while engaged in a rich discussion at the Boys and Girls Club. My friend Byron Stookey and I had contacted the inimitable Ricky Davidson to see if we could talk with area youth about their views on economic development and job opportunities in Brattleboro. Our discussion was part of a commitment that Byron and I made over a year ago to seek out voices on the edges of the critical conversation about the economic health of our region. As a member of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies workforce committee, I know that despite the numerous meetings and forums held to hear from area residents while the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies document was crafted, there were voices we didn't hear; some folks simply don't attend public meetings. Byron and I have been trying to fill in the holes.
We learned so much. These impressive young leaders expressed worries about the easy drugs available in our town, and they named the "sketchy" areas around town they try to avoid. Most said they feel generally safe now but would have real concerns about raising their own children here. They all seemed to appreciate the town's artsy flair and cultural offerings, but they worried that young locals are being left behind.
One young woman said, "It is so hard to afford a date night in this town!" The others readily agreed. Now that Frankie's Pizza is gone, there's no place in the downtown district where one can grab a cheap slice. They also wished the Latchis could offer a cheaper "movie night" option for teens. Many said that the shops in Brattleboro "aren't for us." And several commented that Brattleboro is "too into the local thing" and "caught between hippies and tourists." "It is hard for us to buy things we need," they explained, "and we can't find jobs here. Nobody wants to hire a teen."
Many bemoaned the fact that they cannot buy affordable teen clothing downtown. More than one said "they'd kill" for a clothing shop geared towards them: an Urban Outfitters, PacSun or Forever 21. Now they drive to New Hampshire or Massachusetts to do their clothes shopping. As one teen pointed out, "Burlington and Northampton have some of these chain shops, and that hasn't 'ruined' their towns."
These students come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and experiences. Some plan to stay in the area as adults; others suspect that their interests and passions will lead them elsewhere. All cared deeply about this town and their place in it.
At the beginning of the meeting, Ricky reminded the teens that we truly wanted to hear their thoughts. His dogged determination to honor and champion these young people shone as he shared the astounding number of community service hours these students have contributed to area organizations. He reminded us that we must have the courage to be vulnerable in order to be seen and heard.
He said, "Speak even if your voice shakes." Brené Brown -- research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and best-selling author -- writes and lectures extensively on courage, vulnerability and shame. Her 2012 book, "Daring Greatly," has been a companion to my work with Byron and has guided my thinking about listening deeply to others' perspectives.
Brown starts her book with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt's speech "Citizen in a Republic" -- the so-called "Man in the Arena" speech -- delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris over a hundred years ago. One particular passage addresses her themes: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again ... if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly ..."
Brown asserts that we want to experience others' vulnerability, but we don't want to be vulnerable. We are inspired by the willingness of others to be vulnerable and authentic, but we feel weak when we think about showing our own true selves. In this way, Ricky Davidson is a tremendous model for these teens: He shows authenticity and vulnerability in his work each and every day. And the teens at the Boys and Girls Club respond.
They openly discussed their fears and hopes for our town and region, and they shared their disappointments. This took honesty, courage, and a trust that someone on the other end would truly listen to their unabashed candor.
Like my 18-year-old self in the preposterous outfit and outrageous hairdo, these students -- much more reasonably dressed, I might add -- embody the importance of daring greatly. Byron and I have gained a much deeper understanding of our town by listening to the opinions they were courageous enough to share with two strangers.