Tuesday March 5, 2013

I am prone to ruts. I love the structure that routines provide, but often the comfort of the predictable becomes imperceptibly stifling. Soon I can't imagine changing up the sequence of my day. Thank goodness for my children; they identify the furrows so effortlessly. And so it was on a drive home from my son's preschool the other day. My children asked if we could take a different route home.

To get from the area around the Commons to South Main Street, we took a ridiculously circuitous route past the ski jump, down through Swedeville and then up through Esteyville. It was on Organ Street -- that winds behind the old Estey Organ factory -- that my son asked about the slate-covered buildings spread out below.

I explained that Brattleboro used to be famous for making reed and pipe organs; these gorgeous instruments were shipped all over the world, each one stamped with a tag announcing, "Brattleboro, VT" as its birthplace. This tickled him enormously. He then asked, "Well, what are we famous for now?" I explained that we have an extensive, thriving arts community. There are artists, poets and art historians in our extended family -- so he's been around art and artsy things his whole life -- and yet he still asked, "But what do we make here now? What do we make that you can use?"

Now, he's only 5 years old. He can be forgiven for not seeing the ways in which we consume art to help give our lives shape and beauty. But I still found myself turning over his question for hours. What do we make? I love the satisfaction that comes from making something that others use.

Several years ago when I told a neighbor how neat it was that the old Daly Shoe building on Birge Street had been rehabbed into housing, I heard a surprising response. An old Vermonter and lifelong Brattleboro resident, he responded, "When I look at that building, I get angry. I just see one more example of how industry is being shut out of this area. We need jobs. What good is more housing without more jobs?"

I recently recalled this conversation after a reader, formerly from Westminster but now residing in Virginia, wrote to me following my column of Dec. 24 ("Our urgent need for economic development"). His heartache was palpable; he'd moved to find work and provide for his family. Now, years later, he still reads the Reformer online and ponders what could have been. We should strive to make a place for those with generations-long roots in the area. I don't want to be part of the New Vermont if we shut these important voices out of the conversation.

We are a generous people who monetarily support struggling families through numerous state programs. But there is strong resistance (or perhaps it's inertia) when it comes to actively creating jobs. We must honestly face our suspicion of job creation. As an educator, I see one demoralizing result of the lack of economic opportunity when I peruse the weekly police blotter: Former students involved in burglaries, drug deals, and general malfeasance. I'm reminded of something James Baldwin wrote: "The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose."

Our pride in our area's quirkiness and creativity seems, at times, to edge precariously close to arrogance or, maybe willful ignorance. At the recent CEDS (Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy) kickoff meeting for the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategies Group, a participant claimed that in Windham County, "We are actually ahead by being behind." I've tried, but I don't understand this reasoning.

Recent college graduates can't find work that will pay off their staggering student loans. Working parents can barely afford childcare. This same speaker asserted that we should all "learn to live with less." That's cold comfort for the more than 50 percent of school-age children in our area schools who are on free or reduced lunch. Serve on a local preschool board and you'll see financially stressed families. They already are living with less, and the future looks awfully bleak.

Those of us who have economic security must not become inured to the need of others. And we must not imagine that our situation is the norm or that we can make monetary decisions for others. We want our area to be a place of creativity and artistic freedom, but as FDR argued, "True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence." People who are underemployed do not feel the ease and liberty that permits inventiveness and imagination. Theirs is an exhausting struggle to simply meet basic needs.

My sister -- an art historian and curator -- has spent her entire career surrounding herself with beautiful objects. She often says, "I love that I get to hang out with gorgeous stuff all the time." Although she researches arcane and obscure bits of information, she's absolutely pragmatic when it comes to understanding what it takes to support the arts. The arts need patrons. Healthy businesses support the arts. We also need working families with some disposable income to frequent art events. It is this critical relationship that enables art to be widespread and not just available to a few lucky souls.

Economic development is an awfully complex issue; it involves demographic issues, workforce development, and education policy. But our attitude may be the biggest impediment to change. We cannot remain in the furrows; we must seek innovation for our town and region.

There will be important regional meetings in Bellows Falls, Wilmington, Londonderry and Brattleboro in March and May about Windham County's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. Please attend.

This is not simply about money; it's about the self-worth that comes from the making of things.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.