It Takes a Village to Make a Community

Sustainable Woodstock, along with partner organizations, homeowners and volunteers, has made good progress in recent years in the areas of energy efficiency, recycling, the East End cleanup, and other observable improvements. We’ll continue these projects, and likely add some new ones, in the coming months.

Still, genuine sustainability involves more than tangible goals like reducing our use of heating fuel or keeping tons of reusable material out of landfills. Just about every activist and organization working for sustainability around the country emphasizes that a strong, cohesive community is an essential element in giving a town or region long term resilience.

A community is more than a group of consumers, voters, or football fans who happen to live in geographic proximity. It is a shared sense of concern, loyalty, pride, and identity that is strong enough to motivate collaborative action for a common good.

A culture of individualism that teaches us to maximize self-interest may be a libertarian’s vision of utopia, but as disrupting global changes erode our food, energy, transportation, and financial systems, unalloyed individualism is not going to get us through.

This does not mean lurching to the opposite extreme of some sort of authoritarian collectivism (as right wingers often accuse environmentalists of advocating), but a return to values that are—or used to be—endemic to our culture, particularly in Vermont. These are values of neighborliness, helpfulness, sharing—a belief that we’ll all be better off if we can count on each other when times are hard, because we care about each other even when they’re not.

Over the last several years, a good number of community-building events and collaborations have been launched in our area: Trek to Taste, the Naked Table, Bookstock, Barnard’s Feast and Field Market, annual youth summits, Taste of Woodstock, BarnArts, the Woodstock Area Nonprofit Network and more. There is surely a desire for a shared local identity and collaborative action.

Yet in some ways we face special challenges in building community here. Our downtown core is primarily oriented to tourism. Real estate prices are inflated and there are few true community gathering spots. A startling percentage of houses are owned by part-time residents who call other places home. (Sustainable Woodstock is actively working to involve them in more community projects and events.)

Even among full-time residents, there are distinct circles that do not often enough overlap—families and youths, retired folks, those with quite a lot of wealth and those without, natives and transplants, and diverse religious communities. One example: we have envisioned the East End park as an inclusive community project and hoped that a cross section of the population would come to work days and celebrations, yet it seems that more or less the same committed group keeps showing up. Where is everyone else?

At conferences and in accounts I read, I’m impressed by the creative ways that many towns and neighborhoods in Vermont and beyond are engaging whole communities in collaborative actions of many kinds. We have the potential to do more of those kinds of projects here, and Sustainable Woodstock will continue developing and promoting them. We invite you—everyone—to join in. Step outside your customary circle of acquaintances and consider what you can do to help build a stronger community.

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