Many mornings I pull back the curtains, gaze out onto South Main Street, and see two gals in matching, white, floppy hats on their morning constitutional. They stride along and then stoop mid-gait to pick up trash. I almost stopped them once while I was jogging up the unreasonably steep hill on South Main, but this asthmatic couldn’t break stride for fear of stopping altogether. So my curiosity has not yet been satisfied, nor have I thanked them for their initiative.
It’s difficult to verify if we Vermonters are, in fact, more community-minded than folks in other states—or if that is just part of our cherished shared lore. No matter; we’ve embraced the mystique. We promote ourselves a bit like the “America of yesteryear” where folks still help out their neighbors and perform that tricky dance of democracy in town meeting each March. Savvy marketing aside, there is truth to the stories we tell about ourselves. 19th century French writer Victor Hugo remarked, “Initiative is doing the right thing without being told.” I see examples of this daily in my community, and I wonder if someone will step up to wrestle with the issue of Gallery Walk.
The recent concerns about rowdy youth at Gallery Walk—and how they may negatively impact tourism—raise legitimate questions about the economic wellbeing of this town. But it sidesteps a more important question: How do we make Brattleboro more pleasant, dynamic and workable for the people who live and work here? People do not want to feel harassed when they are out for an evening of art and entertainment. After general agreement on this issue, however, it becomes thornier; everyone has a different tolerance for chaos and disruption. Although I once enthusiastically supported punk music and sported my own mohawk, I’m now more inclined towards calm and quiet when I’m out. (This might have to do with the two boisterous young children who insist on living in my home.) As a former middle school teacher, I know that teens want to have a meaningful role. If invited to help shape Gallery Walk, they’ll employ their enthusiasm, excitement, creativity and irrepressible quirkiness. If the right people take the initiative, they’ll guide them towards positive participation. They will be in great company, as residents all over Brattleboro have taken the initiative to improve the quality of life here.
Some initiatives are small in scope. Alison Macrae, owner of Verde on Main Street, often weeds, plants and spruces up the garden beds of Pliny Park. She tends the gardens there because residents and tourists alike congregate in this pleasant spot to eat lunch. Other projects are more ambitious. Just this week a small group of volunteers announced that after 15 years of hard work and pluck, they’ve established a public trail along the West River. And some projects are very grand indeed: Consider the group of investors who aim to bring the Brooks House back to its former glory. Regardless of size and scope, these initiatives matter to all of us.
Two volunteer groups in particular have recently caught my eye. One is the Exit 1 Gateway project, a group working to make Brattleboro’s entryway a lovely, landscaped area that will both reflect our civic pride and strengthen our community spirit. Martha Ramsey, a project leader, notes that many residents were displeased with the appearance of the town’s entryway, but they soon realized that, due to the towns more pressing concerns, nothing would change unless citizens undertook the initiative themselves. Ramsey speaks of the possibility of real change in manageable terms: “It only takes a few dedicated people—even just 2 or 3 to guide a positive development forward. Anyone can do this.” Doug Cox, of The Neighborhoods Project (part of the West Brattleboro Association), also understands the importance of viewing people as a valuable resource. Cox and others in this West B group seek to strengthen personal neighbor-to-neighbor ties as a means to achieve other important stated goals: greater civic involvement; more efficient use of personal and community resources; and a stronger sense of belonging. The need for this project became distressingly clear when Tropical Storm Irene devastated West Brattleboro, cutting off sections of town. We simply need to know our neighbors.
Everyone I know rails against the constraints of our daily 24 hours. And no one, with maybe the exception of Martha Stewart, possesses Hermione Granger’s Time Turner. So we must find scraps of time at the edges and put them to good use. Many people are truly strapped for time and money in this soft economy. But we often tell ourselves that someone else has more time, and that’s why they are more involved. I’ve come to realize that this is usually not the case. These folks are just as pressed for time as I am, and yet they dedicate themselves to something that is important to them.
Morning strolls to pick up trash or improving our art walk cannot be likened to something as celebrated as Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march to the sea, but they still matter. The successful solution to rowdy Gallery Walk, and innumerable other local issues, will be homegrown and quirky. And the one who spearheads the initiative will carve out some time at the edges and enlist others to do the same. They will live Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Perhaps this person is you?