Living Democracy

Unexpected Gifts Make Roanoke Summer a Blessing

Joy PorterOn my last official day in Roanoke, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. Although I usually consider myself to be a morning person, I am not usually a 4:30 a.m. morning person. But this early morning had a purpose.  According to NASA, the hour before dawn on Aug. 13 would be the best time to view the annual Perseids meteor shower, and I wanted to see my first shooting star.

And so, wrapped in a cozy sweater and braced with warm drink in hand, I met the unseasonably cool morning. As I situated myself on the trunk of my sedan, I thought how very fitting it was to end my summer of firsts— first economic development work, first city council meeting, first court experience— with yet another first.  As I waited, I thought, for about the hundredth time in the summer of 2015, how glad I was to be in Roanoke.

The expanse of the night sky stretched out above me. Constellations glittered in a way I had seldom seen before. While waiting for the first signs of activity, I thought about the many benefits of living in a rural small town, in Roanoke. At that moment, chief among them was the lack of light pollution, which would have impeded my ability to view the meteor shower in my hometown, a large city. The more I considered the issue, however, the more I realized how much I had come to appreciate living in a town of 6,500 people.

My summer in Roanoke was my first experience living in a small town. I hail from the suburbs of a large capital city, Nashville, and our communal character has always been determined by our relationship to this city. We may technically be distinct, but I have always felt that many view our town as an extension rather than its own entity.

By contrast, Roanoke has a character all its own. Though it does maintain a close association with the other communities of Randolph County, it seemed to me that citizens of Roanoke were very aware of what made their city distinct and special. Residents’ love for their community was evident from their knowledge of local history to their understanding of extensive family trees to their passionate involvement on local civic issues. Their warmth and generous spirits also set them apart, as I affirmed later that evening.

 During my last week with the RCEDA, I noticed that my community partners were acting a little strangely. Not enough to cause any reason for concern, but enough to know that something was up. During my summer, I was able to participate in nearly every aspect of economic development work, and I always felt welcome in every conversation. In my last few days I was politely shooed out of rooms for ‘confidential conversations,’ and I noticed that whispered discussions ceased when I entered the room. Fortunately for my partners, I am notoriously obtuse when it comes to surprises, so I had no idea what they were scheming up.

Unbeknownst to me, my very thoughtful community partners were organizing a going-away party on the evening of my last day of work. Unaware of their plans, I considered leaving that afternoon to spend time with my grandparents in Birmingham. They eventually had let me in on their party so that I wouldn’t leave town before the event. I was so touched that they would plan something for me, which I imagined to be a small dinner party of five or six people. Given that my community partners don’t do anything by half-measures, I probably should have known better.

When we arrived at my favorite restaurant in town, Gerson’s, it quickly became apparent that they had something quite different planned. Rather than a small dinner party, I was greeted by 30 or so community members, people whom I had come to know and greatly respect during my summer in Roanoke. There was wine and delicious vegetarian food, and, most meaningfully, wonderful conversation.

During the evening, attendees were given the chance to speak. Words can’t express how touched I was to hear from the people who had become my Roanoke family that summer. Many said kind things about me, my summer in Roanoke, and the Living Democracy program. Others gave gifts, mementos to remember them and the city by. There were many memorable moments during my summer, but I know that I will always hold that night as one of my fondest memories of my time in Randolph County.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a month since I left Roanoke. In some ways it feels like I’ve only been gone a few days and in other ways I feel as though I’ve been gone forever. As I’ve returned home and settled back into a more urban setting, I find myself missing Roanoke and parts of small-town life. I think of it often, whether in the form of a sudden craving for a Jon Boy’s hamburger or of a piece of news that reminds me of rural politics.

Joy Porter with AU Alumna Marian RoystonI learned so much this summer, about myself, about economic development work, and about democracy on a rural, small-town scale. I learned about the warmth and camaraderie that is found amongst the citizens of smaller towns as they band together to create the best community possible and to better the lives of its residents. I learned about the generosity they exhibit as they invest in each others’ lives by caring for neighbors, serving those in need, and throwing parties for a summer intern.

I also learned about communities at a crossroads. This summer I was struck by the feeling that Roanoke and Randolph County are at a critical point in their histories. This summer the community made decisions about their county that will have long-reaching effects.  The discussions surrounding these issues, and other associated community conversations, seemed to signal that the community is really stretching its wings, trying to figure out who they want to be and how they envision their future.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that I have the utmost confidence in the abilities of Roanoke’s community leaders to traverse these tricky waters. By investing in local infrastructure, building new parks, and restoring the town theater, I believe that Roanoke has distinguished itself as a town that recognizes its past and is looking toward the future, as a town that appreciates its history but is always striving to make it better for future generations. And I fully admit my bias, but I believe that the leadership team at the Randolph County Economic Development Authority will play a big part in that.

I learned that economic development work is arduous, slow, and sometimes tedious. At the beginning of the summer, I didn’t fully understand all that economic development encompasses. To my mind, economic development involved trying to induce large companies to move a plant or a warehouse to a community. Economic development does involve recruiting industry to an area, but it’s also so much more than that. Day-to-day economic development can mean poring over topographical maps to figure out potential sites that could accommodate an industrial rail line, teaching worker certification courses to invest in the local workforce, interceding on behalf of industry with the local government to ensure that these companies have the needed infrastructure to operate, or organizing a meeting of citizen representatives to discuss community image and branding. And that might just be one day.

Joy Porter throwing fish feed into pondEconomic development is difficult. It truly is. It is a long and sometimes thankless job, more often characterized by incremental gains than victorious leaps. Economic developers often face questions from fellow community members who mistake lack of radical observable change for lack of effort, a criticism sometimes lobbed at my community partners. It was difficult to see them face these critiques, especially when I knew how hard we were working and the long hours that my partners put in.

However, I also learned that it is work worth doing. Just as economic development work is varied and multifaceted, its benefits also have a wide-ranging impact on a community. Economic development means recruiting and retaining industry, which translates to more jobs, a better educated workforce to fill these jobs, more local workers remaining in the area rather than migrating, a growing and more diverse populace, etc. In many ways, economic development and civic engagement work seem to go hand-in-hand, as they both seek to empower communities to chart the courses of their futures and to facilitate citizen-led efforts to better their communities. After this summer, I’ve come to believe that you cannot have the most effective community engagement initiatives without having a strong economic development orientation and vice versa. Each is essential to the success of the other.

For my first shooting star, I wanted to get the full experience and do it right, which meant thinking of a wish. As I laid on the trunk of my car in the early morning hours of Aug. 13, I racked my brain trying to think of what I would wish when I finally saw a meteor. A number of options quickly popped into my head, the typical things a post-grad with an uncertain future might wish: security, a fulfilling job, purpose and direction. I soon realized that those weren’t the things I hoped for most dearly, at least not at that exact minute, and so I settled on an errant possibility that felt unexpected but right.

I know it’s not customary to share your wish on a shooting star, but I’ve never been terribly superstitious. Plus, I have no fear that my wish won’t come true— I know that I’ll be back in Roanoke soon, as I wished for.  My summer taught me as much about myself as community development, and I know that I’ll take the lessons I learned and the relationships I forged into the future. This summer was an incredible experience, one for which I’ll be forever grateful.

Last Updated: September 23, 2015