A small town looks to its assets

WASHTUCNA, WASHINGTON--Several years ago Waste Management, Inc., one of the world's largest companies with 68,000 employees and $12 billion in sales, optioned a property and proposed a large landfill near this eastern Washington town of 280 people. The resulting controversy, says rancher and school board member Dick Coon, Sr., "split families down the middle, and some of them haven't gotten back together."

Some wanted the jobs that the landfill would bring. Others hated the idea of becoming a repository for Seattle's garbage. Waste Management has extended its option to the year 2007.

Washtucna was once the largest town in Adams County. Its economy depends primarily on wheat farming, and has been hit hard by low prices. The Chamber of Commerce folded. There are vacant buildings on the main street. The grocery store has changed hands several times, was closed for a while, and many people drive 30 miles to Ritzville to shop. Fourteen people graduated from high school this year, compared to 24 in 1970. The school cooperates for music with Kahlotus (14 miles) and in sports with La Crosse (23 miles). Most of the young people leave. Says school superintendent Dale Clark, "Everybody always wants to take things away from us or come in and do it to us."

Vacant low-cost rental housing began to attract welfare recipients from Seattle and Spokane, and they "brought all the modern social issues to Washtucna" according to one resident. Says Janice Sullivan, a 20-year resident who considers herself a newcomer, "a small town has to overcome prejudices about nonproductive families."

"We've been self-sufficient but not wealthy," she explains. "Money hasn't been the key to survival out here; work has. We built our swimming pool without government help."

In 1996 Doreen Hauser-Lindstrom, who worked in youth development for Adams County extension, got some Washtucna residents interested in applying for a training program sponsored by the National 4-H Council and funded by the DeWitt-Wallace Reader's Digest Fund. Called "Bridging the Gap of Isolation," the project's purpose is to help isolated communities build capacity for positive youth development. "Isolation" was broadly defined, and 10 communities were selected, including a school district in California with lots of seasonally occupied second homes, a village on Montana's Northern Cheyenne Reservation, a migrant farmworker settlement in Florida, and Washtucna, where a relatively high percentage of youth were in trouble with the law.

Bridging the Gap, or "I Care" as it is called in Washtucna, reflects many of the ideas that came from John McKnight's studies of urban neighborhoods. The 4-H Council team recognized that young people develop in communities, not programs, and that young people are not community problems, but have the potential to build and strengthen their communities if they are given the chance. At periodic Institutes across the country, the project trained both youth and adult volunteers in asset mapping and facilitation.

In Washtucna the shortage of volunteer manpower has limited what could be done in terms of community improvement, says Mike McKenzie, who is an "I Care" volunteer. The Lions Club is the main community club, with 32 members. Youth were not usually involved in community service.

High-school student Kate Baumann volunteered to be a part of the project. "I had mixed emotions at the beginning. We'd just lost our grocery store and our Chamber of Commerce. Yet we're starting a new project: 'Another thing I have to do.'"

The school became a key element and focus of the project. Several volunteer adults paired with high school students to do the asset mapping. They went door to door with a survey that asked about skills, community assets both physical and social, needs, and what people would like to see in Washtucna.

Janice Sullivan also volunteered. With a varied background, she felt she could talk to everyone. "There was resistance at first on the part of the established people. If someone tells you you can't do something, you believe it."

Though most agreed that the survey they developed was too long and cumbersome, it was a good tool. "The asset mapping forced us to call every household. It changed the perception some people had of others, and it made us more aware of each other. You have to guard each other's dignity."

Volunteers also helped assemble a "Wall of Wonder," a visual history timeline that commemorated important transitions for the world and for Washtucna. Janice Sullivan says, "we noticed that every time a new generation married outsiders, new ideas came in."

Communication of the project's purposes and results was an obstacle, Doreen says, because there is no local newspaper that most people read.

Youth volunteers presented the results to the community in meetings that they helped facilitate, using the training provided by the 4-H Council. Also using the asset mapping, the youth volunteers helped facilitate meetings that developed a vision for the future of Washtucna.

At the visioning sessions, various strata of this often divided community "weren't sitting next to each other, but they were all in the room," says Doreen. "They were hearing each other voice their concerns, their strengths, and what wonderful things there were in their community, and what things they needed to improve their community."

Two women volunteered to do a welcome wagon to help include new arrivals. Washtucna residents raised over $20,000 for repairs and a new roof on the Grange Hall, which is the only facility large enough to accommodate the people for weddings and graduations. Sidewalks are about to happen, as well as improvements to the town park. A local couple opened a restaurant.

The project volunteers have acquired skills. Those who attended Institutes in other locations brought back some perspective. Kate Baumann says, "I've learned a lot of stuff about how to fulfill myself--leadership skills, communication skills. There are a lot of assets here."

Says Jon Newkirk, an area extension agent based in Ritzville, "It's amazing the change in attitude that's happened just by that community doing a fairly complete asset mapping process. They no longer talk about how isolated they are, how picked on, how nothing ever happens in Washtucna."

Doreen Hauser-Lindstrom feels that Washtucna residents "are learning to dream. A number of negative things have happened to them over the years that have maybe stifled their dreaming ability. Now they're starting to come alive."

"There's people excited about getting things done," agrees Dale Clark. "There's less hostility and more partnerships. This all came from the discussion, inclusion, and caring of the project."

Most agree with Donna Stoess, whose son Brian is a student volunteer: "It's a slow process in a community like this. It's not an overnight thing."

Mike McKenzie says "this is not a fast-moving program. But there's involvement by people who do not normally get involved in anything, which creates more participation, more viewpoints." He also observed that there is community work done by youth, where before there was little. "If you give the youth in the community a task and responsibility, they will get it done. You have to believe in them, trust them."

"You have to care enough to create change," says Janice Sullivan. "What you tried five years ago may now be possible. The biggest challenge has been to get people to accept the idea of sharing power. You have to worry about what needs to be done, rather than who needs to be in charge. The prejudices in this community have been surprising to me. I didn't know who I was, and realized they didn't know who they were. We're learning how to talk."