Tuesday April 30, 2013

There's a story we tell about Brattleboro, and by extension, Windham County. It's the narrative we read in last year's Smithsonian Magazine's Top 20 Best American Small Towns list: We are an area rich in creativity and forward thinkers, and our music, art, and theater offerings are astounding for such a thinly populated area. Many Brattleboro residents are indeed justifiably proud of our arts town. It is chock full of artistry, creativity and musicianship, so the story many of us tell is truthful in a certain light. But when one narrative starts to takes precedence over all others, deeper meaning and complex understanding gets lost. Many who live in our area just don't recognize this story of a thriving artists' haven; they know a very different town. It's time for us to create a new, more nuanced narrative together.

I inadvertently started gathering other stories of our area after I wrote a Christmas Eve column about our need for economic development. A reader -- originally from Westminster but now residing in Virginia -- wrote an honest, poignant e-mail about his inability to find work here in southern Vermont. As we corresponded several more times, the subtext of his writing became clearer: There are important stories of our area that don't get told. Or, perhaps, they do get told, but we haven't trained our ears well enough to truly listen.

After a March column, "The Making of Things," I heard from artists, business owners, retirees, longtime residents, newer arrivals, activists, and community leaders in town. All their comments echoed an inescapable implication: The story we tell about our town is not complete; it leaves out the experience of many people.

There is danger in a single story. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses this danger in a TED Global talk she recorded in July 2009. When Adichie first wrote stories -- at the age of 7 -- she only wrote what she'd read: American and British children's literature. All her characters were blue-eyed and white; they played in the snow and spoke of the weather; and they consumed apples and ginger beer -- all absolutely foreign to a young Nigerian girl. "We are vulnerable in the face of a story," she explains. We lose our own experience to the more powerful -- and ubiquitous -- narrative.

Adichie recounts the pity her college roommate felt for her long before they'd met; she believed that Africa's sole story was one of poverty and civil strife. Adichie's experience growing up on a university campus in Eastern Nigeria -- the child of college professor and an administrator -- could not have been more different from her roommate's imaginings. When her roommate asked to hear some of her "tribal music," she was sorely disappointed when Adichie whipped out a Mariah Carey tape. She explains, "My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story ... there was no possibility of a connection as human equals."

When you have power, you have the ability to highlight your own story and whether willfully or not, crowd out others' narratives. And where you begin will necessarily change the story. This is true for our town, too. The narrative of an arts town is fairly recent, but it has gained traction quickly. As Adichie says, the story is not untrue, but it is incomplete.

Let's expand and strengthen the story of our area. We must avoid a shorthand description of who we are because shorthand will not guide us bravely and honestly towards what we want to be. No matter the issue -- diversity, economic development, poverty, or our arts community -- the perspective and the starting point of the narrative are both critical to the story. Let's embrace depth and complexity.

Marshall Ganz -- lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- asserts that a story's real power is its ability to communicate fear, hope and anxiety, and "because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts." A story can also help us create the "us" in a community. He explains, "It's putting what we share into words." This act of sharing stories generates the "us" of a place, and it can help banish the "us and them."

I invite all of you to share your own story of our area. Whoever you are, whatever your experience, write a story, short description, anecdote, a memory, or a really good yarn that captures what this corner of Vermont means to you. Keep it to 900 words max -- but feel no obligation to write that much. If you are not confident writing it yourself, grab a friend who will take dictation for you. And please pass this invitation along to those who don't read this newspaper. E-mail the stories to me with the subject line: The Stories We Tell. Or mail them to Becca Balint c/o of the Reformer, 62 Black Mountain Road, Brattleboro, 05301. I'll be honored to read them.

What will I do with all these stories? Honestly, I'm not sure yet, but I can't wait to find out. Right now I just want to start this important conversation.

Inspired by Alice Walker, Adichie concludes her talk with this wisdom: "When we reject a single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise."

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