Paul Costello: Democracy and community leadership

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Paul Costello, the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Yeah, these are disturbing times.

During this period of political division and antagonism nationally — when the ideals of democracy are undermined and skepticism is rampant, and when social media blasts us with endless iterations of bad news — our own faith in the power and future of democracy can be challenged.

Maybe that’s healthy.

It reminds us that democracy is not a given. It’s not guaranteed. It’s an experiment, tested every day in our Statehouse, our town meetings, and proved in every action that community members take together to build a playground, line up to support their downtown, or work toward the common good. Democracy is not a spectator sport or about an annual vote; it is the fundamental basis to strong civil society.

As we face the economic and demographic challenges that confront us locally, we are not absolved from responsibility for national events. But we can’t wait for solutions to come from Washington, or even Montpelier. Local leadership is the key ingredient to build unity, set direction, and achieve progress in the face of the daunting economic and demographic challenges that confront rural Vermont communities. In democracy, all citizens are called upon to lead. Where leaders step up, towns achieve great things.

At the Vermont Council on Rural Development we sometimes end community meetings by observing that, “This work, this local leadership, this rallying to do what is in our power is as important as the national news for a dynamic future for our community — the center of world democracy is right here tonight!”

We see amazing and wonderful efforts that make democracy real in practice every day.

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People in Vernon have stepped up in the face of the closure of Vermont Yankee; they are designing a new village center, looking to develop a community cafe, developing improved recreational trails, and working to generate new businesses in buildings connected to the plant. Newport residents are rallying in the wake of the EB-5 debacle to build unity and do all in their power to actualize their assets for tourism and economic development. Lyndon’s new downtown committee is planning towards a Wi-Fi zone, and a public/private partnership with Northern Vermont University is planning a co-working space in the Bag Balm building in the heart of the downtown.

Guilford is transforming its weathered Grange building into a dynamic community center.

Hardwick is rallying toward the redevelopment of the yellow barn on Route 15 and the old granite sheds as centers for community and commerce. Rutland is developing an historic series of marble statues for its downtown. Middlebury residents have launched a project for engaging neighbor-to-neighbor to help reduce energy use and increase renewable energy generation for the future of the town’s climate economy. The community in Chelsea is working toward the regeneration of a community store. Folks in Pownal are rallying together for an ongoing green-up campaign and are mapping, sharing, and expanding trails and other recreation resources in town. In Bethel, residents came together to pool their talents through “Bethel University” that has coordinated thousands of educational experiences between community members.

Through the “One Burke” project, that town is improving traffic and pedestrian safety in East Burke, where ski and bike tourism are flourishing, and working to improve water and sewer infrastructure in West Burke to support the redevelopment of the heritage buildings in that historic gateway to Willoughby and the north; and meanwhile, designing expanded school facilities. Pittsford is looking to the revitalization of the Village Farm at the heart of its community as a community center, agricultural hub, and potential business location for the future. Craftsbury is setting up a new broadband system, and a team of parents have built a new child care program for the vital and growing community of young families. Brighton has developed a new recreation program and is revitalizing downtown buildings — including a new inn and pub.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of community-driven projects happening throughout rural Vermont today. When we look at communities, we need to see more than their problems; we need to see and celebrate the local residents who are doing all that is in their power to drive their communities forward. Motivated by a wonderful and binding patriotism of place, they are constructing a future, building energy and momentum, and making democracy real.

We can’t become passive in the face of bad news. As Ernest Shackleton, the early 20th century explorer, said, “Optimism is the true moral courage.”


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