Can I help?

We need to think expansively and creatively to find solutions to our most pressing issues

BRATTLEBORO — Southeast Vermont is a place full of well-intentioned, compassionate people. The officially sanctioned infrastructure here for helping vulnerable individuals and families is impressive.

But outside of the accepted conduits for helping - like volunteering and donating to government recognized nonprofits - how are we each empowered (or not) to make the change we want to see in our community?

It can be easy to let the government and nonprofits be in control and set the tone of the conversation, but it can also deprive us of taking personal responsibility for our community and being active citizenry.

Lately, I have been wondering what systems slow down or discourage us from bravely imagining creative solutions. And, furthermore, from whose perspective are our local problems being defined, and how does that 1) create a narrative with a distinct point of view and 2) determine the solutions?

* * *

One issue (of many) we could look at is housing. There has been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of housing in our area. We are short many hundreds of units, and there are countless anecdotal stories of individuals who cannot find places to live.

Through my window I see one possible solution: my driveway is empty.

Zoning regulations in many communities would allow me to park my own empty RV in my driveway but typically would not allow me to let someone live there even if I arranged for infrastructure support, such as septic hauling.

If this was a solution a person wanted to pursue, they might feel disempowered from doing so.

You may agree or disagree with this possible solution, but the point is to illustrate how we each are impacted by existing systems when we try to engage in solving pressing issues.

It is important that we recognize and call out systems that often go unexamined and acknowledge that we created them and therefore can reimagine new ways of being and recreate new systems that function better for our circumstances.

* * *

Keeping with the issue of housing, I have been struck by how often the problem is framed from the perspective of those - like me - who are comfortably housed.

I get the impression that it is generally considered important to maintain the status quo for those of us who are already housed and to expect sacrifice, such as waiting years for an apartment, to come from those who are already being injured by the lack of housing.

This nonsensical approach reminds me of trickle-down economic theory and the promise that if poor people would just wait long enough eventually the wealth would get to them - after they just suffer a little (or a lot) longer. Of course, in truth, the wealth never makes it all the way down.

If we truly have a crisis, then it makes both practical and moral sense to take from those who have more and give to those who have less. In the case of housing, a very minor taking could be the temporary relinquishment of town-owned spaces, such as picnic shelters, to provide people living in tents with locations that are less susceptible to the weather (like the recent flooding) and access to bathrooms.

Is my ability to access recreation space more valid than someone else's access to a place to sleep out of the elements? It is difficult for me to imagine how I could justify that position.

* * *

Again, the issue of housing is only an illustration, but we need to engage in these thought experiments - which we could do with any number of issues, from the opioid epidemic to climate change.

We need to ask how we can care for each other and examine whether the systems that prevent care are valid and valued enough to trump the crisis at hand. We can step outside the confines of problematic existing systems, embrace experimentation, and get creative to make our place in the world better.

Lindsey Britt is a baker, traveler, and needleworker. She has a background in planning/zoning regulation, and her activist work centers on animal rights, constructive nonviolence, and climate justice. She is a member of Compassionate Brattleboro.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

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