Grow Your Own Town

Flashback: 1 year, 2 months before. We see a broken soul, in her most fragile state, all because of the dying town she calls home. All she yearns for in life is an outlet for her creative being, but the environment she is buried in won’t allow it. This girl was me. I felt like I didn’t have a place. The town I lived in was barely gripping the edge. Small towns like these are on their deathbed.

Why, you may ask? I think it is the lack of community. Our sense of connection is dwindling away, but I have a solution; music. Music brings people together. Now you may be thinking, why is community so important in small towns? Well, I can tell you my friend, that living in a dead town is no Sunday drive. The lifeless aura that comes with it creates a dark outlook on life. Do you want that for your children?

Now you’re thinking, why should I care? I live in New York for God’s sake, why should I worry about those small dead towns? Well, impoverished rural towns struggle to provide adequate education. Additionally, workers struggle to find gainful employment in small towns. As a result, poorly educated workers flee the countryside due to the lack of opportunities and jobs. Now there is an increasing number of rural migrants in cities like New York, resulting in a higher percentage of undereducated, underemployed people living in the city. This puts strain on housing, medical, water and energy supply, and creates a lower quality of life for the citizens. Healthy small towns are the opposite. They are intriguing, making people want to visit or move there. The economy is much better and schools prosper. Good economy brings culture, and culture brings good economy. When people have their basic needs met, they have room to create.

Also, in the recent election, the majority of Trumps voters were from rural populations. Thriving towns provide more progressive education which can decrease the impact of ignorance. Their views make a difference. Think about it.

When I am talking about music bringing people together, I’m not talking about recorded music, but live music instead, created by local bands. Music brings magic. It gives people a place to meet other humans, and to hang out in a place other than their old boring homes. It is a spark to a thriving town. Just think of Footloose.

Eddy Nix is a major changemaker of Viroqua, WI (town of 5000) and has done it through music. Eddy founded the Driftless Books out of “part necessity, part fulfillment of a dream.” He bought a warehouse full of books in Connecticut, filling up two semi trucks, and had to have a place to put them. He stored them in his home, which at the time was “the big old post office in Viola, Wisconsin.” Tragically, right after, a huge tornado came through Viola, and took part of the building with it. The next year there was a flood, with two feet of water throughout the building.

Eddy had to get through quite a few challenges and struggles to get where he is. About seven years ago, the current building, the old tobacco warehouse, was given to him. Because of this, Eddy could get Driftless Books started. It has evolved since, and now is focused on bringing the community together.

Around 4 years ago, Eddy began incorporating music into Driftless Books, and that changed things forever. It started with “The Yellow Bellied Sap Suckers,” a local band, and then they told their friends,and the chain went on. Before long people started to call Eddy, wanting to have a show. He said, “It is a reverse of what most places have to do, in terms of going and finding people. We are lucky that way, because we have an interesting unique spot. Plus the community, people love the audience.There is a feeling of both the artists and the audience having a nice time and a magic that you can’t describe or put into words. You get such an incredible hit from some of these nights.” One thing that Eddy loves the most is getting to see young people play music, and that the whole community can share that.

In Eddy’s words, “In general, community means way more than anyone can put their finger on. It’s not quantifiable, but the quality of the situation. You have to appreciate and keep the mystery in community while really taking care of it.” He talked about how much Driftless Books has helped Viroqua. I believe it has made it interesting, and gives opportunities to have little slivers of experience with people you wouldn’t have met. It reaffirms their sense of community and yours.

I asked Eddy how he thought music affected small towns and he said, “Towns where there is music, it makes it very vibrant. Towns where there’s not the opportunity, it stifles a lot of creativity and it leads to unhealthy things that kids do because there is no outlet. I mean not just kids. But I think music in small towns is critical.”

Now I ask you again, how can we fix this problem of sad dead towns? How do we call in the musicians? I think that just having a place that people can play, like Driftless Books, is enough. Creating a space where artists feel welcome to express themselves, in my opinion, would be a breeze.

But why should you care if towns brush themselves off and rise to greatness? Because without the bright lights on a map of grey, how boring would it be? Do you want to drive through another gasping town, on your commute to work, trying not to take in the dull disconnected view? Ignoring it and calling it good? Or are you ready to plant the seed of music and help it grow?

Living in a place that weighs down on you is hard. Sometimes you just want to give up, to stop caring. When you haven’t seen the greener grass, you forget to need more than brown. But I think that everyone deserves to love their community. I say its time to dig yourself out and feel the sun.

This story is part of a new Storytelling for Changemakers program for Changemaker Schools activated in partnership with Ashoka’s Youth Venture and Start Empathy.

Individual views expressed in this blog are from individual students at YIHS and not representative of Ashoka, Start Empathy, or Youth Venture.