Editor’s note: This commentary is by George Plumb of Washington, Vermont. He is a board member of Better (not bigger) Vermont and a member of Buddhist Peace Action Vermont.
Where is the sense of “community” now in rural towns? When we moved to the then largely farming community of Washington, Vermont, in 1968, there was a really strong sense of community. As soon as we moved here, two other families who lived in town invited us to come for dinner. That rarely if ever happens anymore. Back then most everybody in town knew most everybody else or at least knew who lived in what homes. Now most people know very few others. In fact, often people don’t even know their neighbors.
At that time there were several community organizations including the Grange, a strong PTA, three vibrant churches, Girl and Boy Scouts, activities like dancing at the school on Saturday nights, and even a fair on dedicated fair grounds in the village. Now, most of these no longer exist. The three churches are down to two and one of those is barely surviving. Comparably, the historic large Catholic church in East Barre has closed. Growing up a Boy Scout and in a local church were two of the greatest experiences of my youth for both pleasure and shaping my values and I am sad to see organizations like Scouts dramatically having reduced in numbers around the country.
There are three primary reasons for the loss of sense of community. A main one is population growth. In our town the population size in 1950 was 650 and now it is about 1,150, almost double in size with the number of housing units having increased even much more as family size has decreased. The more people there are, the more difficult it is to know everyone.
Another factor is that with the dairy farms almost all gone, people are now commuting long distances to work, which takes away time, although I commuted a long distance but still managed to be very active in my community.
And a third factor is that instead of connecting as a community, people are now mainly only connecting on social media and spending time watching a lot of television, which they didn’t used to do.
I realize that there is a great variation in “sense of community” among different rural towns with some having a much stronger sense than others because maybe they have a co-op, a restaurant, or something else that brings people together. And we should certainly be grateful to the many people who do volunteer for the local fire department, support their local churches, coach youth sports, and look after their neighbors by doing things like delivering Meals on Wheels.
Let’s think about how people who live in rural towns can build an even stronger sense of community. Rural living is still vitally important to many people who want to feel connected to the natural environment, enjoy scenic beauty, walk in the woods, do farming, or keep horses. I think a primary opportunity is to revitalize a community church. Only instead of calling it a “church” call it a “spiritual community” or some other broadly accepting name. The mission would be to establish deeper connections with people of a variety of interests and backgrounds on a journey of spiritual growth. With a weekly gathering of people of all ages this could really provide deep connection. Another possibility could be to create a community support group that volunteers to go out and help those in need by giving them physical and social support.
Another possibility would be to do a town survey and ask people what they would like to see happen to feel more connected to their community and give a wide range of choices. A very important question in such a survey would be to ask, “Do you want to see this town grow in population size and have more development or to stay about the same in population size?”
In conclusion, it is very important to realize that a primary human need, no matter what your age or background, is to feel connected to other people. The more we build relationships with others through community organizations and events the more we can feel and act on that interconnectedness. As Vermont author Miles Sherts says in his book “Conscious Communication, “As we face any number of looming global catastrophes, our continued existence on earth will likely hinge on our ability to get along with each other. In the era ahead, cooperation will be the important skill, and building community will become essential to support life.”
It is a complex issue but let’s begin the discussion.