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Voices / Viewpoint

Can we talk about our town?

We can ask the difficult questions about the quality of life in Brattleboro only if we honestly look at truths that might not match our perceptions

Shanta Lee Gander is an artist and multi-faceted professional in areas of marketing, management, event planning, and more.

Brattleboro

This all started with a question I posted on social media, a question that came from my thinking for years about the state of Brattleboro.

I asked everyone: Is our town going down the tubes due to what seemed to be a degradation of our overall environment (drugs, crime, closing businesses, etc.)?

I also challenged myself to think outside of the box about how we resolve what ails us as a community while also questioning my own harmful perceptions of what I was witnessing.

I’m setting out here to raise questions without an accusatory tone and to include insights from my conversations.

If we think outside of the box — viewing ourselves as consultants being asked to come together to resolve some of the issues within an ever-changing organization — how would we approach this problem?

If we were to ask ourselves who, what, and how, what would we have as answers or places to start?

* * *

I started visiting Brattleboro in 2009 and became a resident in 2010. Brattleboro was unlike any Vermont town I’d encountered — my introduction to the state came via Stowe.

The town (and its people) were quirky. Brattleboro seemed to have what I’d been missing: quaint tea shops, a downtown through which it felt accessible and safe to walk at night, and unlikely characters and conversations to be encountered on every corner or effortlessly within a coffee shop.

Here, one could explore and test any parts of themselves. Over the years of living here, I always was quick to clarify that I was from Connecticut or that I was a city girl, all the while picking and choosing the parts of Brattleboro’s quirk and charm which served my personal needs and objectives.

Over the past couple of years, my bubble eroded as I noticed more incidents that seemed to overwhelm a town of its size: murders, fights or scuffles in the middle of the night, and a lack of anonymity, which leaves one feeling like one was in a constant fishbowl amid an ongoing rumor mill. All this, alongside the rise of opioid addiction and homelessness.

Perhaps I looked at Brattleboro as fitting nicely and neatly into my view of a small New England town, as opposed to view my town on its own terms. One night, I went into a store but suddenly found myself spooked by someone (cloaked by the darkness) yelling, “Hey!” in an attempt to get my attention to get change.

The next day, a panhandler stood next to the parking meter with a sign for help. That same evening, another individual stood next to a local hangout spot, also with a sign, similarly asking for help.

* * *

So, on this particular week, I kept asking myself and eventually asked others: What are the problems, and how do we solve them? What could any of us do to really create change or help?

Personally, I knew that my spare change or impromptu food or coffee purchases for people in need only temporarily soothed hunger but did not truly solve the underlying problem for that individual.

I started to think about Brattleboro as an ever-evolving institution or organization, one that required us to ask ourselves some questions:

Who?: Who exactly is the “we” within this community? Whom do we serve, internally and externally?

Are we the hipsters, trust-funders, or hobbyists who don’t have to earn a living who became seduced by Brattleboro as a quaint little country town and so either a) purchased a second home or b) decide to make Brattleboro their destination for all things leisure as they return back to Connecticut, New York, or their original home towns?

Maybe “we” includes the professionals or flatlanders (myself included) who came here also seduced but desiring to contribute to the community.

Does the “we” belong to the local and regional royalty, an exclusive club that includes a few elite members?

Does our version of “we” include the growing population of the people whom many of us don’t wish to see, like the individuals recently released from the Brattleboro Retreat who wish to create a new life here, the individuals suffering from addiction, or the growing number of people experiencing homelessness?

What about our store clerks, baristas, waitstaff, and many others who serve us, day in and day out?

I’ve had friends, for example, who work in many of the local businesses in town but who feel precluded by the costs of going out to dinner or enjoying other activities.

A most compelling question has surfaced in my conversations: Whom is Brattleboro for?

* * *

Our next question is: What?: What do we know, and what don’t we know? What is real versus perception?

Some people commented on my thread about the need for data or more information in regard to addressing the larger issues.

Also, what does Brattleboro want to be in terms of identity, within the context of its own history? I am reminded of our rich local history: The water cure, which drew many from around the world; the major printing industry, which paved the way for the printed word in our region. And who could forget the Estey Organ Company, which plucked the finest artisans from Europe to come here to ply their craft?

The area has had many different iterations of “what” while continually finding ways to communicate these various touchstones of our identity with the rest of the world.

Perhaps now is a time to reconnect with our “what” as a way to establish context and to remember our resilience as we try to move forward.

* * *

So what, now what? Is it a question of when and how?

We can ask the difficult questions only if we are willing to be honest and look at some versions of truth that might not match our perceptions.

The most difficult question: Who is the person or who are the people who will lead this change?

Some feel that we have no leaders and that is a part of the problem.

One of the main complaints about the need for change? The old guards at the gate whose main purpose is to keep everything, from art to politics, within certain boundaries. They mix that mission with an enduring schoolyard or Mafia-family mentality.

I recently joked that I often felt like I had to seek permission from the heads of various Mafia families or leaders of fiefdoms as opposed to just seeking collaboration for a project.

And, of course, I was reminded that all of these dynamics are nothing new to this area.

* * *

We know that communities are very much like our experiences within families, that we are always faced with navigating some level of dysfunction.

And very much like family, the factors that are present are not necessarily planned.

Our strength is our ability to occasionally gather around the table. So is it possible for all of us, now, to gather around the table to ask the tough critical questions? Might we be able to create, build, and maintain a community with our discoveries while navigating inevitable dysfunction?

Perhaps we can use the answers and take into account the good here as a starting point.

A recent conversation reminded me of the most pragmatic way of approaching these complex issues facing our town.

A person told me that all we can do is focus our energies on the things that really can make a difference, even if they seem small. Those things can be as simple as helping out a family or neighbor or as sizable as becoming an elected official and helping create policy.

Whatever it is, we must ditch the schoolyard mentality and work across sectors, across our divisions of “we,” and uncomfortably come out of our silos if we have any chance at figuring out a collective long-term solution to our problems.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #424 (Wednesday, September 6, 2017). This story appeared on page E1.

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