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COMMENTARY

Helping communities help themselves

I was raised in a community of 400 people in the Mississippi River bottoms in southern Illinois. When I lived there, we had a K-12 school, three churches and a few small businesses. Due to consolidation, the school is gone. Two years ago the last church closed its doors. Its last business was shut down due to enforcement of federal leaking underground storage tank regulations. The population of that town is now barely 300.

I am a product of this small community and I am proud of my rural roots. But, I am saddened when I look back at this town and others like it. The strong sense of community that existed in the 1950s and 60s has diminished, largely because of the reasons listed. The question that needs answering now is 'where does such a town find its sense of community?' As I wrestle with this question, the only answer I see is that it has to come from the people themselves. It either happens, or this small community gradually fades away.

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Joe Dunn

As Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Community Services (ICCS), I hear story after story of struggling communities. It is heartening to hear from our staff that many small towns are making positive steps to preserve their quality of life. One of the most common concerns I hear expressed is, "We don't have any money for this." As we approach this area through asset based organizing, we know that where you have people, you have resources - talent, time, and yes, money.

In tiny Bradford in Stark County in northwestern Illinois, residents have rallied behind their commitment to support a youth center.

In Newman, in Douglas County, citizens concerned with the future of their town have organized and have embraced the reality that they need to be a welcoming community.

In an unincorporated area called Triple Lake Heights, near Marion, local residents organized and successfully provided water usage information that enabled a nearby water district to apply for a grant from the state of Illinois to provide a public water system for the first time.

Twenty years ago in Wyanet, in Bureau County, a small group of citizens recognized that domestic violence was not just an urban phenomenon, and opened their first shelter. That project has grown and now serves five rural counties.

In Carroll County, the faith community joined with small farming interests to address the changing landscape of agriculture through the creation of the Family Farm Forum.

The list goes on and on.

As we pursue our mission of "helping communities help themselves," it becomes clearer each day that the challenges facing rural life can indeed be met through the collective strength, will and creativity of people who care. You know your community and you understand the changes taking place. Rather than sit idly by and watch the disintegration of rural life, gather with your neighbors and develop a plan of action. Don't be afraid to dream and express what your hopes for your community might be.

As you gather, remember that what you are doing is not new to us as Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States and studying our democracy in 1835 said, "The Americans are the most peculiar people in the world. You won't believe it when I tell you how they are. In a local community in their country, citizens may conceive of some need that is not being met. What do they do? They go across the street and discuss it with their neighbors. Then what happens? A committee begins functioning on behalf of that need. You won't believe it but it's true. All of this is done by private citizens on their own initiative."

Our economic and social structures might be changing in rural Illinois, but the very fiber of the character of our people remains the same. If you would like help in organizing a grassroots effort in your community and discovering its strengths, please call ICCS at 800-728-1523.

Joe Dunn became Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Community Services in September 1998. Prior to that he served on the staff of U. S. Senator Paul Simom for 15 years. He served, as Outreach Coordinator for Illinois Farmers Union-CETA for four years.

The opinions and views of guest commentators are their own and may not represent those of the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives or the electric co-ops of Illinois.

4 ILLINOIS COUNTRY LIVING JUNE 2001


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