GVI program focuses on strengthening sense of community in Westport
Published 6:25 pm, Friday, November 19, 2010
You're never too old to come home. This was the message expressed last night at the Westport Public Library's McManus Room in a program called, "Building Local Economies."
Addressing students enrolled in Staples High School's Advanced Placement Environmental Studies class, along with interested adults, a panel of three local professionals discussed the benefits of connecting to one's community. These strong ties will ultimately affect Westport's overall economic and social make-up and could positively influence sustainability, according to Westport Green Village Initiative (GVI), a grassroots nonprofit organization founded in 2008 to promote sustainable living.
Dan Levinson, the organization's founder and president, said last night's event was an outgrowth of a presentation held earlier in the month by Susan Witt, an advocate for implementing local economies based on an inherent sense of community. At that time, Levinson and other members of Westport GVI, sponsors of the event, were dismayed to hear Westport's young people repeatedly decry plans to return to their hometown after college to work and raise a family. Moreover, despite Witt's argument in favor of living simply, sharing resources and doing work that one loves, most students said that they could never afford to live in Westport's affluent community.
All of last night's speakers agreed, though, that there is a way to remain connected to the community and live modestly.
"The bonds you create in the community growing up are really strong ones," said panelist Stuart McCarthy. A graduate of Staples High School's Class of 1979, McCarthy has been the town's Parks and Recreation Department's director for 25 years.
McCarthy said he thinks his history as a longstanding community member helps him make good decisions for the town. "There's some perspective that goes with being in a community for a long time," he noted.
Another Staples graduate, panelist Justin Miller, recently moved back to Westport to work as choral director at the high school. He said that he missed seeing "real trees" when he lived in California. He also missed his friends living on the East Coast. "I never felt like I had close friends out there," Miller said. "It's a great feeling to be back here."
Gareth Noble, also on the panel, agreed. Describing himself as a "transient," he was excited to move to Westport after living in big cities, including Hong Kong and London.
"I love that I actually recognize people when I go to Stop & Shop," he said, with a smile. "I even know the names of policemen in town."
Although student Vinnie Amaru said that he could see himself residing in Westport "in 15 or 20 years when I make what the average person makes in town," he commented that he would need to acquire a great deal of money before making his move.
Levinson pointed out that Westport residents get a lot of benefits -- such as a great library, beaches and recreational facilities -- and there are many other places in the United States that also have a high cost of living.
He said, "We're not at all suggesting that you never leave. It just concerns us that the best product of our community -- its young people -- are feeling kicked out all of the time. We wanted to offer information about how it's possible to come back home and work and live in a great place."
Student Danny Pravder expressed concern about what he described as Westport's lack of community ambiance in its prevalence of retail chain stories. He challenged Westport GVI to take action in support of local mom and pop stores. Referring to a longtime Westport music store, Pravder said, "I'm a regular customer at Sally's Place and there's a real feeling of community in that room. Sally knows the names of all of her customers. There's that real sense of people knowing each other there. What are you doing to encourage the mom and pop stores to come back to Westport?"
Michael Nussbaum, another student, suggested that the town subsidize small retail businesses so that they could remain on Westport's Main Street. "I agree with the need for community values," he said. "I think this often gets swept under the carpet and it shouldn't."
In response, Levinson said that, as an organization, Westport GVI was attempting to address these concerns. As part of a global movement to promote sustainability by strengthening the local economy, agriculture and environment and making positive changes in the community, Westport GVI reaches out to support organic farming, eco-friendly housing and energy efficiency.
"We're trying to rebuild a sense of community," Levinson said.
He explained that some of the organization's plans include supporting local entrepreneurs through micro lending programs.
"If you have an idea, there are people in this community who would rather help to fund you and support your business endeavor rather than purchase more stock in J. Crew," Levinson said.
Levinson also revealed a newly created concept that will be rolled out shortly called, "WE: Westport Essentials."
Following the model used for dispersing and selling organic food grown at its Wakeman Town Farm and Sustainability Center, homemade items -- including jewelry, soaps, etcetera, would be sold at cost at the Cross Highway location. "We're going to connect people with products that they need on a real local level," Levinson said.