Editorial: Change the Story

Last week, while I was in Phoenix attending the Balle conference, I made my way through dozens of presentations, workshops, and conversations focused on shifting the dominant paradigm from extractive, individualistic, and competitive to wholistic, just, and collaborative. This “new” model is something that has lived in my heart for as long as I can remember, so it was extraordinarily refreshing to be among so many like-minded people taking action and making significant changes for the good in their communities. This is not just a sentimental mindset, it is a grassroots movement, gaining momentum daily for social, environmental, and economic justice.

One of the speakers, David Korten —founder of YES! Magazine and author of several books focused on economic justice— facilitated a lively group discussion around the theme of his most recent book: Change the Story, Change the Future — A Living Economy for a Living Earth, which I immediately purchased and devoured.

The Introduction to the book reads as follows:

Choice-making beings of many possibilities, we humans live by shared cultural stories. They are the lens through which we view reality. They shape what we most value as a society and the institutions by which we structure power.

When we get our story wrong, we get our future wrong.

We are in terminal crisis because we have our defining story badly wrong. Seduced by a fabricated Sacred Money and Markets story, we live in indentured service to money-seeking corporate robots and relate to Earth as if it were a dead rock for sale.

Communications technologies now give us the capacity as a species to choose our common story with conscious intention. This is a moment of unprecedented opportunity to create a future consistent with our true nature and possibility as living beings born of a Living Earth born of a Living Universe.

An authentic Sacred Life and Living Earth story is emerging. It has ancient roots in indigenous wisdom. If embraced, it changes everything.

Change the story, change the future.

So it was an interesting juxtaposition that while I was immersed in the momentum and excitement of this story-changing movement, the conversation was being played out in real-time at home.

It began on June 10, when our local paper reported that an article from 24/7 Wall Street (an online magazine reporting on financial news) named Viroqua (my town) as the “poorest in Wisconsin” based on median household income. Many readers shared this news story and there was rigorous debate going on within our community. After all, Viroqua is ground zero for this website which aims to highlight towns that work. The whole RealSmallTowns endeavor was born from the strong sense of community, the thriving organic and food culture, the commitment to local businesses, and the sharing economy that flourish here. Since we don’t generally tend to think of ourselves as poor, it was surprising to be called out in this way. It is not new news to find out that we don’t have high median income, but being designated as THE poorest town in Wisconsin was somewhat jolting. Something did not seem right, and in the end it became clear that what defines us as “poor” must depend on who is directing the narrative. So it was a great relief that by the time I had returned to my home turf, local farmers Toril and Drew Fisher had written a thoughtful and insightful response to the piece: changing the story in an effort to change the future!

Viroqua: The Destination of the Interdependent and Co-operative Elite
VIROQUA HARVEST PARADE: Instead of throwing candy at you, paraders hand you organic squash

VIROQUA HARVEST PARADE: Instead of throwing candy at you, paraders hand you organic squash

We would like to respond to Matt Johnson’s article in the June 10 La Crosse Tribune entitled “Viroqua Poorest Town in Wisconsin.” 
First of all, the original article that Matt was responding to that was published on the website 24/7 Wall Street was referring only to towns—towns with populations of less than 25,000. Thus, American cities with their urban blights are not even considered in the original article. Also, the original article was published on a website that is maintained by an organization that proudly boasts its association to Wall Street which is our planet’s current number one name associated with greed and avarice, lying and cheating, enslavement and manipulation of the masses. So, taken into consideration, the authors of the original article were probably looking through the lens of their vodka martinis and leather designer couches.  Their mission was, no doubt, to try to divert our attention from the crimes of the “haves” by shining a light on the “nots.” Or perhaps he was trying to remind us in the way that the lackeys of the 1% can spin a story with their twisted use of the English language that there is an alternative to playing along with capitalist consumerism with the inferred message that that life sucks.
Our Clothes Dryer— Have yet to call for service repair

Our Clothes Dryer— Have yet to call for service repair

Mr. Johnson, of course, had to pick up this story because the organization he works for counts Viroqua and Vernon County as part of its neighborhood. We must point out that Matt did a laudable service of pointing out that there were “other socioeconomic measures of the town [that were] quite strong. The high percentage of adults with high school diplomas coupled with the relatively low poverty rate implies a resident population of citizens who have purposely chosen to A) live in Viroqua (and Vernon County—which has equally ‘poor’ socioeconomic statistics), B) live on relatively low incomes and C) not complain about it.
 Later in the article Mr. Johnson paraphrases Couleecap executive director Grace Jones as saying that “it’s no secret the La Crosse area in general has long-term poverty issues.” But then again, what town, county, city, or region on this planet does not have long-term poverty issues?
Another hidden factor in the socioeconomic census statistics for the Monroe, Crawford and Vernon County region of “the poorest three counties in Wisconsin” is the residence of a fairly large population of citizenry who do not value money, possessions, material acquisition, and consumerism in the same way that “average Americans” are conditioned to do.  We are, of course, speaking of the Amish—of which Wisconsin has one of the three fastest growing Amish populations in the U.S.—the Cashton settlement (Vernon County) being the nation’s 15th largest Amish population and the largest in Wisconsin. Again, we must reiterate that the Amish population does not share the same capitalist consumer agenda that Wall Street and Washington, D.C. would have us all worship. Therein lies a segue into the key element of this response: the dominant paradigm of moral, ethical, and socioeconomic behavior that Wall Street, Washington and the corporate media would have us all accept and defend whole-heartedly is not necessarily “right,” “better,” or even “good.” We would even go so far as to assert that according to an educated, non-impoverished population base living in Viroqua, Wisconsin, that legitimate moral, ethical, and socioeconomic goals and standards exist as alternatives to the ones Wall Street would have us espouse. Such sacrilege!
Our Amish Neighbors

Our Amish Neighbors

Therefore, it must be said that the “5-Year Estimates from the US Census Bureau” that came from the 2009-2013 American Community Survey (ACS) must be taken with a grain of salt as the term “poverty” is highly subjective and may have no correlation to the level of “happiness” or “satisfaction” achieved by those who have chosen to live in Viroqua and its environs.

Did you know that Vernon County has the highest number of certified organic farmers in the nation? Did you know that our Founding Fathers regarded farming as “the most noble profession”?
Did you know that our nation’s wealthy elite colluded to methodically destroy the 97% agrarian way of life that permeated this great nation from coast to coast in order to man their factories and sweat shops, their clerical desk jobs and corporate cubicles? It is their goal to have us enslaved to them through debt and income insecurity in order to keep us too afraid and powerless to rise up and throw off their chains. We believe that many people who have chosen to live in Viroqua have made this choice with the intention of living under the radar and outside of the control of the corporate elite. 
Our Backyard: Bounty and Beauty

Our Backyard: Bounty and Beauty

Did you know that Viroqua’s beloved Waldorf schools, Pleasant Ridge and Youth Initiative High School, harbor the nation’s only 100% organic hot lunch program? Did you know, that in a town of just over 4,000 people that Viroqua has a non-commercial, non-corporate, community supported radio station that has over 85 community volunteers producing and airing their own shows? Did you know that our small town also has over 4,000 members to its local food cooperative? Did you know that Vernon County is the home to a multitude of organizations that have consciously selected a cooperative model over a corporate model? Fifth Season Co-operative, Viroqua Food Cooperative, Westby Co-operative Creamery, Organic Valley Co-operative, Vernon Electric Cooperative, Center Point Counseling Co-operative, Maple Valley Co-operative, Kickapoo Woods Co-operative…. and the list goes on and on. Again, people move here for their valuation of quality over quantity, of choice and freedom over limitation and enslavement. Some might say we have chosen a different kind of slavery with our average of low incomes, yet in this state we are able to feel less of the pressures of the machinations of control and forced dependency coming from faceless owners of global corporatocracy. Instead, we choose co-operation over corporations. Our currency is cooperation.  Viroqua is a town of people who care deeply for the well being of our small businesses as demonstrated through three very large and successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns in the past year.  
A Neighboring Farmer Preaches: "Love Your Neighbor: Share the Bounty

A Neighboring Farmer Preaches: “Love Your Neighbor: Share Your Bounty

Interdependency is another one of our most treasured currencies. Two times a week, thousands of community members receive an email from Banner’s List, a list of events and classifieds that is generated by community members. This list is filled with standard postings of items for sale and community events, however, the majority of listings are a demonstration of a community coming together to help each other. On Banner’s List you will find meal wheels for new parents or recently hospitalized persons, requests for ride shares, searches for lost chickens (not kidding), or inquiries seeking instructions on how to darn socks or teach others the art of canning/food preservation.  Wealth and success in our town are gauged in the knowledge that our talents and abilities are used in ways that help and serve others. 
Community Radio

Community Radio

In every town there is work to be done. In our town, Viroqua, there is the cooperative, heart-centered power to do it… interdependently and collaboratively.  After traveling around the world for a place to settle, we very conscientiously chose Viroqua and Vernon County as our nesting place as have many others that we have met since arriving here four years ago.   

The final fact we would like to draw attention to is the final quote from Mr. Johnson’s article. According to Johnson, the editor of 24/7 Wall Street said that overall the story has drawn strong reactions. “The number of negative reactions has been above normal for a report of this size and distribution.” To us this says a lot. It says that people recognize the bias in anything coming from an organization that chooses to associate themselves with Wall Street, but more, it says that those “poor” and “impoverished” people about whom the article was written are educated enough to feel empowered to react to a “Wall Street” generated and oriented article, and that they have courage and hutzpah enough to pen a letter in order to express their “negative reactions.” Bravo! you poor, impoverished people choosing to live simple, happy and meaningful lives outside of the dominant paradigm of corporate greed and out-of-control consumerism. We think you very wise. And definitely wealthy beyond your average debt-ridden American.

With love and gratitude for the people and beauty of Vernon County and Viroqua,
Toril and Drew Fisher
(Second Cloud on the Left Farm)
Our toilet - Yet again, no service needed

Our toilet – Yet again, no service needed


For a look at the original article, visit:
Viroqua poorest town in Wisconsin

For more information on BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) visit:




  1. GOOD FOR YOU VIROQUA!! That’s telling it like it really is!!

  2. BRAVO!!

  3. Perspective is the key. This is why we live here. Thanks Toril and Drew!

  4. Viroqua is the richest place I’ve ever lived. Rich in kindness, creativity, hard workers, beauty and style. Thoughtful, challenging like this article. Thank you!

    This article is a perfect example ofclass colonization.
    A shift in the nature of the economy from a resource-extraction economy to an aesthetic-based economy, where only the wealthy can afford the beauty of our area.
    Has no one noticed how the folks who grew up in Viroqua have been relegated to the trailer parks on the edges of the town they grew up in?

    • While I can really appreciate this comment/concern, I have to point out that, all across the country, rural communities which have relied on resource extraction for generations are losing population and drying up. Young people cannot afford to live or stay in these towns because there are no jobs, businesses have closed and Main Streets are boarded up. Viroqua, and towns like it are growing and generating jobs for a new economy. Nevertheless, the problems that go along with gentrification are real and need to be addressed. Creative solutions are coming in the form of cooperatives and land trusts, and I feel convinced that a strong coalition of hearts and minds can come up with more creative ideas.


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