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Why Community Matters

Why Community Matters
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Why Community Matters

When Yankee editor Mel Allen gave the keynote speech at the Howard Center’s Big Night fundraiser at Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont, he knew he had a receptive audience. The topic of the June 22 talk was “Why Community Matters,” and since 1873 the Howard Center has served the residents of Greater Burlington and Chittenden County with a vast array of social services. Today more than 15,000 Vermonters receive help, advice, and hands-on services from the Howard Center’s 1,000-plus employees. For details, go to:

I want to thank the Howard Center for inviting me here tonight-not only because it gives me this chance to speak about how vital a role strong communities play in the lives of all of us, and how important the Howard Center is to the sense of community here in Vermont, but because it gives me the chance to learn about you. I’m honored to be a small part of your Big Night.

Awhile ago I spoke at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Maine and was asked to speak for up to an hour. Last spring I was a speaker at a convention in Massachusetts, and there I was asked to speak for 30 minutes. Tonight I was told: “15 minutes. Max. 15 minutes.” I wonder if there’s an underground network of speech organizers who spread the word: “Tell Mel Allen to keep it short.”

This September, Yankee marks 75 years. In the publishing world, that’s a pretty big deal. At the heart of what Yankee has written about has always been sense of place — always community.

There hasn’t been a more important story for Yankee over the years than this one: keeping place alive, keeping communities vibrant. And that doesn’t happen without people who care, and people who understand that all of our lives are better when we belong to a place that we care about.

The wonderful Vermont writer Bill McKibben wrote a story in a recent Yankee about the Front Porch Forum, which, as you know, has its roots right here in Burlington. We called it “Making Good Neighbors.” He told about how, through the vision of a few and the power of the Internet, so many of Burlington’s neighborhoods became linked, as if by a town crier who reached out to all. And we received a letter from a South Burlington woman that we published in our new summer issue.

“In my neighborhood,” she wrote, “it enabled us to rally around a young mother who was dying. Because of her illness, she and her husband hadn’t gotten to know many people. With Front Porch Forum, however, we were able to arrange for someone to prepare dinner for this family and deliver it every night for two months before she died, and for several weeks after the funeral. Through Front Porch Forum the family also received a steady stream of cards and notes, and practical help with dog walking, errands, and driving the kids to after-school activities.

“What struck me most,” the writer continued, “was the number of neighbors who expressed appreciation that Front Porch Forum had enabled them to participate in helping this family at a time of profound need. Most people want to be neighborly, but we no longer have the local institutions and the time to do it the way we used to. FPF is a modern community-building tool that has admirably filled the need in the fortunate neighborhoods that have access to it. Many thanks for running the story.”

Those of you whose lives are devoted to making lives better, to making communities stronger, know you reach out to people in a region that more than any other is known for its stubbornness, resistance to change, and a general “leave me alone, I’ll go it alone” ethic. You need a special empathy and determination to convince many New Englanders to reach out for support and necessary help.

There’s a story about two Maine fishermen who have been drifting for days, surviving on the blood of seabirds. Near death, they sight a distant ship. One fisherman waves his shirt wildly, screaming, pleading, for rescue. His companion says quietly, “Jed, don’t do anything to make you beholden to them.”

There’s also a doggedness here, a resiliency. An ethic not to whine, but to get through, to endure; the feeling that earlier New Englanders went through much more; we shouldn’t complain. I met a farmer not long ago, a man in his eighties who made his living delivering fresh eggs to more than 100 families using only his horse and buggy. He’d been doing that for 60 years. His house was old and worn, and a great black woodstove and a second wood furnace heated the drafty place. I asked him if he had backup heat, oil perhaps. He looked at me, surprised. “Son,” he said, “backup is me putting in more wood.”

For a pretty good chunk of Yankee‘s life — more than 30 years now — I’ve been an editor at Yankee. There are few places I haven’t seen in New England. The character of this region is not abstract to me — it’s alive in all the voices I’ve heard, voices whose words I’ve written down in notebooks that fill closets and file cabinets. At the heart of every story, I can tell you, have been people and place.

I’ve seen communities form in so many ways. Recently I spent time with Lela Anderson in Prospect Harbor, Maine. She’s been packing sardines for 54 years — her hands full of nicks and as knobby as the bark of an old oak from snipping heads and tails off herring for more than 25 years before machines took over the cutting. The sardine plant, the last one in the United States, was about to close. You’d think she’d be happy that she could finally get some rest and sit back, sleep in, and enjoy being 80. But no, this was her community: the women on her line — they stood shoulder to shoulder day after day — and always women, because, as the plant manager told me, “It takes a woman with a strong back to pack fish.” And, he added, “Men can’t do it.” She was losing her friends — the people she talked to every day — the people she listened to, because she was the communal mother and grandmother. And when that last day came, Lela cried her eyes out.

Updated Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

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