Exiles on Main Street

A small-town banker in Minnesota sits at his desk, talking to us about how his work had been stripped of meaning over the past 15 years.

“It used to be that I would go out to a farmer’s place, take a look around, have a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. I’d take into account his reputation with other farmers and businesspeople in the community, and then make a decision about whether or not to approve a loan,” he says, his voice rising with exasperation. “Now I’ve got so many federal regulations and paperwork requirements, my knowledge of farming and of people’s integrity doesn’t count for anything.” He grabs a book the size of the Chicago phone directory from a shelf and drops it–plop!–onto his desk. It’s a manual of banking regulations and forms.

When people from the same town talked about the problems they see in their community. Few have a good word for the banker. He has become tight, they say, and he doesn’t take as much interest in people as he used to. And there’s little credit available at the bank for small loans now. Many people have shifted their business to larger banks in a nearby city. When we bring up the numerous changes in federal bank regulations, no one knows about them and how they increase the bureaucratic burden on small hometown banks.

As community organizers working to promote civic engagement in towns caught up in the continuing calamity of the farm crisis, we have come to understand that telling stories is a central feature of community life. And the stories we hear people exchanging with one another often focus on the growing frustration almost everyone feels about how fragmented modern life has become–even in the rural Midwest, which is often celebrated for its old-fashioned sense of community. Appropriately enough, we’ve found that the first step toward reversing this fragmentation is asking people to tell their life stories and then encouraging them to go out and listen to the stories of other people in their towns, especially people they do not know well.

In addition to using stories that come out of the community, we tell classic stories with universal themes to remind people that our lives are shaped not just by our individual experiences, but also by the continuity of human concerns across time, place, and culture. For example, in a town that was embroiled in a divisive battle about consolidating its schools with those in a nearby community, we began a public meeting with a Sicilian folktale. An old couple plants a grapevine, knowing full well that they won’t live long enough to see it bear fruit. A young traveler stops and asks them why they’re making the effort, since they will never drink the wine from this vine’s grapes. “The good is never lost,” they reply. After the traveler leaves, satisfied that his question has been answered, the old woman asks the old man, “What do you think he thinks the good is?” “Only God knows,” the old man responds.

The people at the meeting, some who favored school consolidation and some who opposed it, came to agree that in their situation, the good that is never lost was getting to know people with whom they didn’t think they had much in common. Because they have told one another their stories, they find it easier to discuss difficult issues and search together for ways to make their community thrive. And that’s a lot of good.

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