Building Community as a Long-term Process
(Article published in southern Vermont weekly The Commons
When my wife and I decided to move to southeastern Vermont, a key factor in our decision was finding a place where community meant something. As a psychologist, I believe that a sense of community is an important and under-appreciated human need.
I don’t want to get glossy-eyed about how catastrophes like the Putney Co-op and the Brooks House fires and now the devastation from Hurricane Irene bring out the best in people: Our personalities and relationships aren’t instantaneously transformed by disaster. Compassion evoked by the initial shock may return to indifference and distrust. But one thing is inescapable: We are all in this together and will need to work together to move forward.
This has been quite evident living here in the town of Newfane. Newfane’s small villages of South Newfane and Williamsburg were particularly devastated by the storm. Several homes were destroyed completely, others damaged to the point of being uninhabitable. Large chunks of road were turned into sheer drops to the river below. With the power out in much of the area, the Grange Hall in Williamsville was transformed into a meeting place where those with electricity brought hot dinners so that those without could eat. The latest information available was presented and discussed. Families with specific urgent needs were connected with others who could help them with crucial assistance.
It wasn’t perfect. Some were unaware of the community gatherings and others had to travel circuitous and difficult routes to attend. Sometimes satisfactory answers to urgent questions weren’t readily available. But, imperfect as it was, there was a palpable sense that we were a community, a sense of a common need to get through this together as best we could.
Community is not easily achieved. We come together, united by our empathic connection to each other. In time of crisis, we may set aside our differences, though the stress of a crisis can also exacerbate conflicts. Importantly, the shock of crisis strips away indifference. This pulls us together, increasing our chance to recognize our common concerns and our interdependence.
Maintaining a sense of community is even more challenging. Indifference may resurface and our lose some of our willingness to abide our differences. Our sense that we’re all in this together may deteriorate into “what’s in it for me.” This is only natural, if unfortunate. Though we can say ”Let’s remember the sense of community we had right after the disaster,” it doesn’t always happen.
But there’s another “moral to the story” here: Towns throughout this area were able to come together due to the efforts over many years to function as communities, rather than as isolated units related to each other only accidentally through governmental jurisdictions. Community building is a long-term process.
This on-going effort was crucial here in Newfane. In the emergency, there was a dedicated core of people who were committed to the vitality of the town. This spirit, along with the incredible efforts of our disaster emergency team, the tireless work of the town’s road crew, the support of town and state elected officials, as well the impressive dedication of many individual volunteers, made it possible to help numerous families who were devastated and isolated by the flooding rivers.
Being part of a community doesn’t mean we all agree with each other. Dealing with differences in perspective and personality are part of the process. Still more difficult work lies ahead: The shock of the events will dissipate and we will be left with many months of arduous work and major expenses to be paid. But our task is to respect the fact that we are a community and to recognize that it is as a community that we succeed or fail. In this way, we can continue to build a sense of community that will persist long after the flood waters have receded.
Jon Mack is on the Newfane selectboard. He is president of Brattleboro’s In-Sight Photography Project, plays saxophone in the Buzzards Brass Band, and acts in Actors’ Theatre Playhouse productions.