Friday, June 15, 2007

The Tipping Point

Yesterday evening, Ivan Emke, a professor of Sociology at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, came out to meet with a group of North Shore residents to discuss economic/cultural sustainability in rural Newfoundland. The House Museum was host to the meeting. I was somewhat disappointed in the turnout--all the men invited did not show up. I will try not to make unflattering generalizations about the other sex, but one is tempted. But that is neither here nor there. Ivan listened to our many comments and asked some very good questions about what exactly allows a community to survive. One question was, "What is the tipping point? Is it when the school closes? The fire house? what happens to make it impossible for a community to stay together?"

As we thought about that and gave out some ideas, it became clear that the key to it all was in the young people in the community. While it is inevitable that some young people will want to leave the community and see the world, it makes a big difference if they know they can come back, that there is a viable life for them back home. I hate to be a one-note Charlie, but for me this issue harkens to something I have been thinking about a lot lately, which is that were society to value work that doesn't generate lots of money, then it would allow more people to feel themselves rich. That sounds so obvious, but really it would be a major shift in thinking.

Imagine someone who grows their own food, raises animals for personal and community use, fishes, gathers their fire wood, knows the land, lives with their family. Are they rich? In Newfoundland, there are people like that, probably more here than most places in North America, but many people would say they are poor. And likely they do have little extra cash floating around. But are they rich? Ivan talked about trying to get his colleagues to adjust their "quality of life" markers to include some of the above activities because otherwise most of Newfoundland is listed as having poor quality of life, which we know is untrue.

What if we started telling everyone who lived a life like that that they were rich? Would more people stay in the province? Would young people feel less ashamed to pursue vocations like carpentry or mechanics (as opposed to feeling pressure to go to college) and be able to establish themselves in their community? I suggest that at least half of the outmigration problem comes from our attitude about what is valuable and viable for our young people.

One of the participants yesterday is an older woman named Minnie who left home at age 14 to go teach in a one-room school house in an outport on the south coast. She was teaching children from about age 5 to probably her own age. After that job, she went to another part of the province, raised money in a strange community for the school and generally had incredible responsibilities for a 15 year-old. As she talked about all her remarkable experiences, I kept thinking "is it so bad to give a 15 year-old that kind of responsibility?" Perhaps many 15 year-olds would be much happier if they had to deal with the kind of real, live, physical world realities that Minnie had to deal with. Not everyone, obviously, but what if that were an option that was valued as much as getting a BA?

In rural Newfoundland, the tipping point is nearing for many communities. I have heard talk of another round of resettlement. Maybe it is time for that major shift in our thinking.

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