The building blocks of prosperous and resilient communities in Southeast are readily available, or nearly so. A natural environment with globally significant levels of ecological integrity and an impressive citizen-based social support network are two of the most obvious local examples. However, it is widely acknowledged that Southeast Alaskan communities, particularly those that are rural, have high unemployment and are suffering from out migration and ongoing capacity depletion as a consequence of past cultural and environmental degradation, recent economic busts and the absence of a viable plan for community economic sustainability.
There are many ways that we might begin to imagine a better future for the communities of Southeast Alaska. Some might begin their description by talking about jobs, while others might talk about the beauty of untrammeled nature, some might emphasize the importance of vibrant traditions, while others will note the importance of being connected to the global economy. I have no doubt that for each person who earnestly attempts to imagine a prosperous and sustainable future for their community there is a unique thread of vitality that the fabric of place would benefit from. But even in the places that are overflowing with the capacity to do good things for community it is clear that the challenges of weaving it together into a functional whole is extremely challenging.
In lieu of an easy to follow set of instructions for weaving the fabric of prosperous and sustainable communities it is useful to pick a few key indicators of progress and track them over time. That way we can at least get a sense for whether our strategies are taking us in the right direction. Economic indicators are always a big hit: things like unemployment, average household income, vocational diversity, inflation, etc. Environmental indicators are also very popular with a fair number of folks: air quality, water quality, wildlife population viability, landscape connectivity, or the big kahuna – carbon footprint. Social indicators really hit home as well: food security, treatment of the elderly, educational opportunities, social service availability, leisure time, etc.
One of the simplest and most enlightening indicators of whether a community is sustainable, or heading in that direction, can be glimpsed through the perception of young people, particularly through their sense of place, their imagined role in society and their ability to see themselves as future contributors to community vitality.
Ask a young-person you know: what do you think of the community you live in and can you imagine living there in the future?
If we can take actions as a surrogate for words, the most common answers today are clear. Young people are leaving our rural communities as fast as they can, with very little chance that they will come back willingly. This is a chronic problem for much of rural society.
I imagine this can change. I imagine rural communities in Southeast Alaska where young people can see a future for themselves in the communities that raised them. I imagine a sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense of hope and excitement for the future of their communities that will keep many young people at home to pursue the trades that are at the core of their community’s social and economic identity. I can imagine a community that provides such a fine model of good living that it can draw back many of those who left to pursue college education or to seek the adventure and experiences of world travel. I imagine many of them returning with a deeper appreciation for the quality of life that is available at home.