Sunday, January 02, 2011

Ogallala Commons' Southern Plains Conference poses the question: "What Makes Communities Healthy?

Map of the Ogallala Commons. I live in the northwest corner of the commons, where the High Plains meet the Laramie Range foothills.

I think of myself as a city boy. The title's not entirely accurate. I was born in a city (Denver) but lived in a few small towns in my youth. I was a suburban dweller, too. I'm a product of populations centers and not of the Great Wide Open. That colors my approach to many issues.

Cities have long been portrayed as evil. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree? That was true about World War I, when many farm boys returned from the war and settled in cities. It was really true during and after World War II. Those farm boys that trained in Denver and San Diego and Tucson liked what they saw and gravitated to cities rather than returning to Lusk or Goodland or Gallup. Rural areas, especially those in the Rocky Mountain West, have been depopulating ever since.

Most Westerners live in cities. Not sure what the 2010 U.S. Census shows, but 2007 figures show that 82 percent of the people in the eight Rocky Mountain states live in cities and towns. This may shock those who envision a West with small picturesque villages nestled against a mountain range. Yes, there are those places. Think of Ranchester or Centennial or Afton or Wilson. Idyllic Wyoming towns surrounded by farms and ranches. Residents are salt of the earth folks, descendants of pioneers.

In reality, the more picturesque the town, the more likely it is that it's populated by too many rich people with second or third homes. Often those people don't care about the happenings in their adopted town as long as they are left alone by the hoi polloi. Gated communities help ensure that tranquility.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, the Ogallala Commons organization strives for community in a mostly-rural area in the Great Plains. From its web site:
The Ogallala Commons is a nonprofit community development network, offering leadership and education to reinvigorate the commonwealth that forms the basis of all communities, both human and natural.
Ogallala Commons country is centered over the vast High Plain-Ogallala Aquifer, covering about 174,000 square miles across parts of eight Great Plains states. The backbone of Ogallala Commons country extends along the long north-south axis of U.S. Highway 385 and the 102nd Meridian... but our commons region also stretches west to the Rocky Mountain foothills and eastward to the river-braided prairies of the Midwest.
"River-braided prairies of the Midwest." I like that. I also like the themes for their annual Southern Plains Conferences. The 2010 version was an exploration of the 75th anniversary of The Dust Bowl. It included presentations by writers such as Dan O'Brien and Stephen Forsberg, performance of an operetta and the  "Sabor del Llano Estacado reception featuring locally-grown and produced heavy hors d’oeuvres, beer, and wine." There were even talks about global warming. Global warming did not have quotes around it.

The next conference will be held in Texas in February. Here are the details:
22nd Annual Southern Plains Conference: “What Makes Communities Healthy?"
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Home Mercantile Building & Community Hall, Nazareth, TX.
When it comes to health care, Americans find a lot to argue about these days. But something is missing in these heated debates. Shouldn’t we begin by talking about what we mean by health? Essayist and poet Wendell Berry writes that “community is the smallest measure of health, and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” 
Starting from this premise, presentations at our Southern Plains Conference will explore community health as a participatory work, and an unbreakable circle of interdependent dimensions: environmental, economic, social, physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health. Join with us as we re-member these dimensions and reacquaint ourselves with the tools necessary to develop an inclusive practice of community health that fits our time.

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