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Up By Our Bootstraps?

Sharing our stories of tough times can help us discover that we're not facing them alone—and that we can support each other in building a society that works for everyone.

Victory garden poster

Poster produced by the War Food Department of the United States Department of Agriculture

At Common Security Club meetings we tell stories: the economic tales of our lives, as well as those of our parents and grandparents. Our elders remind us of the resilience of Americans living in the Depression era. Immigrants from Europe can recall the world wars, which are much more recent than they seem. Russians and Eastern Europeans add stories of austerity under Soviet rule, conveying the black humor that got them through it. New immigrants from Africa and Latin America tell of strong communities and extended families, and of the creativity of living with less. Middle-aged Americans remember the gas shortages of the 1970s, and young Americans tell us what it’s like to look for work these days while saddled with student-loan debt.

We've all absorbed the myths of our culture, many of which induce shame and secrecy when it comes to our own stories of hard times. We are deeply imprinted with the U.S. “Yo-Yo philosophy”: You Are On Your Own. Your success or failure is entirely your own doing. But telling our own stories, and the ones pulled from other places and other times, help us counter that prevailing mythology.

I recently spoke with Lynn Benander, president and CEO of Co-op Power, a New England-based energy cooperative. Co-op Power helps people across the socioeconomic spectrum gain access to sustainable energy. Teams of volunteers and experts gather every Saturday for “barn raising” work days in each other's homes, insulating, weatherizing, and installing solar hot-water systems. Lynn describes the mood of these work parties as “happy and proud,” as people of diverse races, ages, and classes work on projects for their common future. Their work builds houses, and reworks the foundations of our cultural mythology at the same time.

In a recent article, Lynn related a story of stories:

I’ve been working with a group of young people in a green jobs training program in a limited resource community in Massachusetts for the last six months. One day, when we were looking at some statistics about environmental injustice, one of them asked why their community had such limited resources. As we talked about poverty and wealth, each and every one of them agreed that “anyone who worked hard and followed their dream would become rich.” I asked them to talk about people they knew who worked hard and followed their dreams. After talking about family and neighbors, they all agreed that there were lots of people they knew who worked hard but weren't rich. Aunts, uncles, parents, siblings were worked long hours but weren't served by the economy they were trapped in. Then I asked them to tell me about people they knew who had become rich. They didn't know anyone. A few people had sold a lot of drugs or guns, but their wealth (and their lives) were often short-lived.

The discussion became a turning point for both Lynn and the participants. Together, they recognized the power of the beliefs that govern our culture, and how dangerous they can be when they remain unexamined. Is it useful for any of us to hold onto the belief that anyone who works hard and follows their dreams will succeed and prosper? When we accept that self-sufficiency is a myth, what actions naturally follow? Will we learn to work together, to support each other, to build a society that works for everyone? Listen. The stories themselves answer our questions in a way more satisfying than a pedantic lecture or a long essay full of citations.


Andree Zaleska

Andrée Zaleska works for the Institute for Policy Studies, where she coordinates the Common Security Club project. She is also a climate activist and the co-founder of the JP Green House, a zero-carbon demonstration home and garden in Boston.

To learn more about Co-op Power, and their efforts to build local ownership of green jobs and green energy in southern New England, visit www.cooppower.coop.

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