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!
|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.
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 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.
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.
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
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: