Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Leader, Leader, Who's Got the Leader?

October 07, 2009

I'm slip-sliding back into Squatters mind, Squatters' Speakeasy mind -- a good thing, all in all, but my biliousness spilleth over. All the right-on liberal affluenza are into "Living Local" these days. I read "Living Local" as "Living Lo-cal" -- Living Lite, living with most of the life taken out. Some fine people are involved, but I'm suspicious, deeply suspicious. Cronig's, the yuppie upscale supermarket where even the junk food is organic and no hamburger costs less than $5.99 a pound, pushes Living Lo-cal and Island Grown and "Our Island Club," which deserves a blog of its own. That's enough to make anyone suspicious, but I buy my steel-cut oats at Cronig's, and my brown rice, and whatever veggies I can't get at Reliable, and Cronig's not only carries my The Mud of the Place, it pays my invoices in 30 days. The market economy makes whores and pimps of us all, trampling our best intentions underfoot.

The Living Lo-cal people had a big do at the Ag Hall last weekend. Saturday it poured all day and I couldn't motivate myself to go out. I'd seriously intended to attend Friday night's panel discussion because it promised to ask where the next generation of island leaders was coming from. I wanted to go and rise crotchety from somewhere in the middle of the house to ask, "You're asking where the next generation of leaders is coming from? What I want to know is where is the current generation of island leaders, or the previous generation of island leaders. Any ideas?"

And that's the heart of the matter, the matter that has fascinated me almost since I landed on these shores. Martha's Vineyard has leadership at the small-group level. You can find pretty effective leaders in arts groups, nonprofits, the schools, small businesses. (You can also find plenty of non-leaders in positions where leadership ability could make a difference.) At the town level it's pretty scarce, and island-wide it's nearly non-existent. I know -- I've had my eyes peeled for going on 25 years and I haven't seen much. Charismatic individuals we've got, but precious few who are capable of motivating others and, more important, of seeing and articulating the big picture. The big picture here, as across the U.S.A., is scary enough that we don't want to see it: the work most of us do for a living is making our lives impossible; it's subverting the democracy we claim to cherish and undermining our best values. Vineyard people love to go on (and on) about the "rural character of the island," but how much rural character can you have when land goes for $300K an acre?

We won't mention the ritzy subdivision off State Road where some neighbors have been complaining to the town about the crowing of a rooster.

Somewhere along the line town government (we've got six of 'em) started reminded me of student government in college: endless passionate and sometimes intemperate debate with little to show for it. After a while it dawned on me that their situations were similar, the student governments I was involved in at Georgetown and Penn and the town governments of Martha's Vineyard, and for similar reasons. Student governments operated within the parameters set by the university; our only real power was the student activities money we got to allocate. Town governments on Martha's Vineyard, and local governments across the country, are beholden to property interests.

Here some summer residents complain bitterly about taxation without representation, but they're still running the show. The taxes they pay are like those student activities fees. The towns can spend the money but they can't keep the summer people from bidding up the cost of land and making the place unlivable for working people.

So what would island-wide leadership look like, and why don't we have any? Stay tuned . . .


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