How the Woodchucks Can Save Vermont

Rapidly vanishing are Vermont’s cultural values and pride in its heritage. With these, also vanishes a sense of place for our communities, a sense of identity for our children, and above all a collective sense of worth for our place in the global community.  With these loses comes a desire in our youth to search for a sense of place and identity beyond our borders.

They are no longer drawn to the iconic image of the small town in the valley a bastion of deep community roots. No longer do they see the dairy farm as a cornerstone of Vermont’s economy. No longer are sugaring, mowing hay, and deer camp focal points of their conversations at the country store or post office. No longer are there stark distinctions between young individuals from the Mettowee, Champlain, or Upper Valleys. Even the Queen City and the Kingdom’s children are becoming, in many ways, more alike than not.

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‘Plow’ by Shawn Braley

Vermont is changing. Change is inevitable.  Vermont can survive changes to how we do what we do. We are resilient. Our communities cannot, however, survive a lack of PRIDE in what we do or who we are as Vermonters.  That is the sea change.

Our distinctive heritage, both the tangible and the intangible, is undergoing a seemingly welcomed assimilation into the more prevalent cultures of southern New England, the East Coast, and America as a whole. Vermont is being homogenized—and, we are not talking about our milk.

In fact, it is becoming nearly impossible to tell the difference between a woodchuck and a flatlander. To me, it would seem that the ultimate goal of each, is to look more like the other than themselves. This might sound trivial and maybe even a bit humorous. But, if you consider the potential loss of the myriad of unique American subcultures on a national scale it simply becomes quite sad.

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‘Tiny Dancer’ by Shawn Braley

Admittedly, there are efforts to ensure that we are preserving the tangible aspects of Vermont’s culture. There are many groups dedicated to the conservation of structures and the filling of historical museums with artifacts to remind us of the past. But, who are the stewards of the living intangibles—the traditional practices, skills, pastimes, oral histories, methods of self-sustainability, and entertainment that created the basis of Vermont’s culture? Where have they gone?

Luckily, there are still a few here and there.  We see them at the local farmers’ markets and scattered around the state wearing their Johnson Wools. A great many too can be found among the teachers in our local schools.

With that, one may think that as you read on, this post is about the necessity to build curriculum around local resources and place-based models of education. And, in a sense that is what I am advocating for. But, not for the reasons that you might think.

Yes, building on connections between classrooms and the communities they come from has been shown to be critical for students to find relevance in their education.  But, it has the potential to do much more than that; it can help students find relevance in themselves.

When we as educators validate the worth of unique local communities, cultural rituals, and traditional careers we validate the worth of our students, we validate their family histories and traditions, we validate the opportunities that Vermont has to offer. It is in this way, the validation of what makes us culturally unique, that our schools have the opportunity to address the most pressing problems that Vermont faces today.

It is a problem that 45% of Vermont students going to college choose to do so in another state. Why do our young people choose to leave Vermont for college and careers?

It is a problem that  47% of 18 to 25 year-olds have personally reported that they have binge drank in the last 30 days. Why is it that so many who stay find their way to a life that includes the abuse of drugs and alcohol?

I believe that we face these problems because Vermont has lost our cultural sense of self.  Young Vermonters have lost a sense of identity and sense of worth for where they come from. 

Only through our communities and schools reestablishing and celebrating “cultural anchors,” as Henry Burns calls them, will students and young Vermonters “rediscover a sense of purpose and self-esteem.” Doing so is critical to their future and the future of Vermont.

Sir Henry Burns, professor of global public health and former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland has done a considerable amount of research around “demoralized indigenous communities.”  The unfortunate impact of this can be seen in formerly distinct communities and indigenous cultures across the globe. To avoid this same demoralization, Vermont needs to not only recognize, but celebrate our own distinct histories and traditions.

If we intend on keeping young Vermonters from leaving the state and to keep those that stay here on a path where they see potential in themselves, and in opportunities within their communities, collectively we need to “rediscover a sense of purpose and self-esteem” in who we are as a culture.

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Sir Henry Burns, professor of global public health and former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland

Our natural surroundings and local communities in Vermont are essential elements of who we are as individuals. These common possessions are the things that help us to form our individual identities and to understand our place in the greater world. It is these things we relate to and gives importance and meaning to not only education, but importance, meaning, and value to our communities and ourselves.

When we strive as communities, schools, and individuals to be more like somewhere else and someone else, the living intangibles of our local heritage mentioned above will disappear. When cultural heritage and traditional community rituals are no longer valued or relevant in an individual’s most influential years what is the chance that that culture will survive?

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‘Toasty’ by Shawn Braley

What do we truly want for the future of Vermont? What do we value? From where do we draw our sense of place and relationships with communities?

How can we identify and better celebrate the uniqueness of who we are, rather than attempt to be a reflection of who we think we should be?

When we say we want to address our most challenging problems, it is a mistake to look for national “big box” solutions when the answers might be found on the shelves of our local country stores.

Vermont’s path and our children’s path forward might best be discovered by looking back.



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Jason Finley 2009 Cohort

Jason Finley, a 2009 Fellow, is the Work-Based Learning Coordinator at Randolph Technical Career Center and Co-Chair of the Vermont Work-Based Learning Coordinators Association. “At the Randolph Technical Career Center (RTCC) I help students to become both career and college ready through work-based learning experiences which build confidence through competence, promote a sense of pride in work well done, and teach students the perseverance and grit necessary to manage obstacles while valuing the effort it takes to turn challenges into opportunities.

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For the future of Vermont, and the future of our students, we must reconnect to and celebrate our cultural anchors. ~ Quote & Photo by Jason Finley

Illustrations in post come from Vermonter Shawn Braley and can be purchased at http://newenglandillustrated.myshopify.com/

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One Response to How the Woodchucks Can Save Vermont

  1. I’ve had some great comments on my Twitter feed about this post. To be certain, I believe that for our local economies to be sustainable and vibrant there must be revitalization through reinvention. Change is not only inevitable, but desperately needed if we are to maintain, let alone grow, our communities.

    But, this takes individuals who have pride and ownership in those communities. I see it everyday in a number of young adults and students. But, I don’t see it in enough.

    I place absolutely no blame on them. Community pride begins with us (the old timers). We need to NOT hold onto the past, but validate the worth of these communities for our next generation if we expect them to see the need to find and create NEW opportunities within those communities.

    When we don’t do this, we have seen the consequences. Those that can, look to find and create opportunities elsewhere. Unfortunately, those to have chosen to stay, find it ever more difficult to make their way in less than vigorous economies. And, because we as individuals are largely a reflection of our collective communities, those still here often feel demoralized, undervalued, and left behind.

    My worries are that too many young Vermonters have given up on their communities and that far too many have given up on themselves.

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