Thursday, March 10, 2011

My kind of empowerment

Much of the work that I do is incredibly small scale. This might seem incongruous from someone who worries about large-scale problems and in other days had big dreams of changing the world. To me, the older me, this shift makes sense. I can sit at my desk and dream about a better government or a happier world of women, but most of that is beyond my grasp of control. Helping folks create better places to live, though - stronger communities, more complete streets, better food systems, more dynamic ways to get around and to connect with the rest of the world - those things I can have a hand in shaping, and do. I've graduated to a perch where I not only say that all politics is local, but I actually mean it. My definition of politics has expanded to make room for this interpretation. In my mind, our streets, our neighborhoods, our towns and our interplay with all of these layers is incredibly political. We vote every time we eat, shop, and make big decisions. They're different votes from the ones that happen in November, but they are votes, and they are absolutely as critical to how this world of ours looks and operates.

In this ground-up perspective, the projects that appeal most to me are ones that engage citizens to grasp their own futures and shape the direction of their communities themselves. As such, I've been thinking about home this week - but not the home that raised me (the Triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, brimming with higher education and technology). Instead, I've been thinking of my grandparents' home, the home where I'm related to over half of the local church cemetery, where the farms tell stories and history is passed down in the land. That home, Bertie County, is struggling, as is most of rural America. Our outdated agricultural subsidy system has created winners (enormous corporate farms) and losers (family farmers), and Bertie County is full of big-system losers in that sense. With farms dying and real industry hours away, the youth of Bertie County has historically been faced with an incredibly difficult choice upon graduation. Do they stay in their dying community, or do they leave and succeed elsewhere? In this respect, the youth of Bertie County is the same as the youth in any inner city. A better world is one where there are better choices for the kids of our farms and our cities.

This is where Project H Design comes in, which is the reason you're indulging me on this introspective rainy DC morning. I believe that we create community organizers every time we engage youth in their own community, every time young people take a stand in their towns, their cities, and their farms about how their world should operate. All politics is local, and all change begins with us. In Bertie County, change can begin with a different kind of chicken coop. 

Project H is an award-winning design and sustainability project (see kudos here, here, here, here, and here, for starters) based right at "home" in Bertie County. Its Studio H project teaches high school juniors at Bertie High (where my dad was once a football star, where my cousin was valedictorian) how to implement good design in their own community. Project H teaches by doing with, not talking to. The kids build their own future, quite literally, in their own town. Project H's lessons can be applied anywhere.

Project H's dynamic co-leader, Emily Pilloton, gave a TED talk last year about what Studio H does, why it's different, and why it works. I'd love for you to watch it. Studio H's project this year is to build an open-air farmer's market in the town of Windsor, home of Bunn's Barbecue and the kind of fading historic downtown strip that makes my heart soar with revitalization possibilities. But this isn't about Windsor, or about me, it's about all of us. Give Emily, and her students, and this little corner of swampy farmland that I happen to love, a chance today. They deserve it.


  1. Awesome post Maggie. Truly awesome. As someone who grew up on a family farm (way past the century mark...) and ended up moving to a city I find this topic so interesting and of increasing importance to me as I get older (and thus wiser of course!). I have been preachin the 'you vote/support with each dollar you spend, action you take' thing a lot lately.

  2. Great post Maggie and something really dear to my heart. I grew up in the California Central Valley, moved away and then boomeranged back about 5 years ago. The CV has many of the same problems and so many of our bright youth are leaving and never returning. Leaving quite a brain drain.

    I am on the board of a organization called Creative Fresno where we strive to promote culture and make our community a place we want to live. Project H's mission is right up our alley and I can't wait to share what they are doing with our board!

  3. There is SO much I love about this post. First: I couldn't agree more with "We vote every time we eat, shop, and make big decisions." Second: Bertie County sounds a lot like so many of the counties in central Pennsylvania: old steel towns and rural farming communities that have struggled to redefine themselves. In fact, the Main Street in our town was a thriving hub of transportation in the mid 1800s. But it now has so many vacant storefronts and rundown mansions that it makes me sad every time I drive through.

    Project H sounds amazing, and I can't wait to listen to Emily's TED talk. Cheers to revitalizing the communities we love!

  4. So on board with everything you wrote - in the past few years we've really started voting with our dollars, especially in regards to food and where it comes from and who produces it.
    Project H sounds amazing and I'm going to share this with my husband - as a HS history teacher and political junkie he really enjoys showing kids how they can make a difference and change their community.


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