Citizen groups study Rutland's challenges
11/20/02 12:00AM By Nina Keck
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(Host) What can a community do to fight crime and substance abuse? That's a question that will be addressed Wednesday at 6:30 at a public forum at Rutland's Grace Congregational Church. Rutland City Police, the Department of Corrections and Rutland's United Neighborhoods joined forces over the past several months on a community dialog project that will culminate Wednesday.
As VPR's Nina Keck reports, the project enabled local residents to meet on a weekly basis to identify problems in their community and work together to find solutions.
(Keck) People in Rutland talk about "that triple murder" two years ago and they shake their heads. That's when it seemed to start, they say. The upsurge in crime and drug abuse in Rutland. Or, many admit, that's when it became frighteningly apparent that the city had a problem.
Since that drug-related triple murder in November 2000, Rutland has created a heroin task force, it's expanded its police patrols, and it created Rutland United Neighborhoods, known as RUN. City residents involved with RUN meet on a monthly basis to make their neighborhoods better. They've worked together to solve traffic problems, clean up their streets and organize neighborhood watches.
But reducing drug abuse and crime in the community was too big a problem for a one-hour meeting. So, RUN members decided to try something called a study circle, small group discussions held over four weeks.
(Sound of voices mingling in the halls of Rutland High School.)
Participants in the project met for the first time last month at Rutland High School. Groups of between eight and twelve people were assigned to a classroom, handed an agenda and introduced to the facilitator who would lead them through their two-hour weekly discussions.
(Gassner, talking to participants) "Well, let's begin and we can just welcome folks as they come in. I'm Barb Gassner and I'm a facilitator. For this process...."
(Gassner) "The first night people came in, I think there was a little feeling of uncertainty about what the conversation was going to get into. Talking about substance abuse and crime - they're not comfortable topics. I think the comfort level rose as they introduced themselves and just named what brought them here. I think that established a circle of common ground and things just developed from there."
(Matheson) "Three years ago I bought a house on Meadow Street. I live in a perfectly wonderful neighborhood. Yesterday, my older girl was at soccer practice. My younger girl is 7 and a half, and I said to the 7 and a half year old, 'Let's take the dog and go for a walk in the cemetery. And she burst into tears, (Matheson begins to cry) because it had been so long since we had done that very simple pleasure. Because I'm afraid to take my child into the cemetery, because hypodermics have been found in the park across from our house, because people load up down by the river. And like brave citizens, we went for a walk and it was wonderful, but it's been a long time since we've done that. And that's a shame, that's a crime."
(Keck) As Susan Leach Matheson spoke, heads nodded in understanding and support. According to the Rutland City Police Department, 80% of crime in Rutland is alcohol and drug related. Eleven percent of eighth graders and over a third of high school seniors in Rutland report using marijuana within the past 30 days. And one of every ten men aged 18 to 24 who live in the City of Rutland are under Corrections supervision. Group member Cheryl Hooker said it was time for Rutland to be more proactive:
(Hooker) "I'm here and willing to participate in this because firstly, I live here. And I think that we need to face the reality of the problems that we have here, and I don't know that we've done that yet. I think a lot of the work is reactionary - it was due to the triple murder that occurred here a couple years ago. I really think that we need to evaluate the situation now, and I'm afraid that one of the biggest problems we have is a lack of treatment in this area."
(Keck) Problems in the community - such as a shortage of treatment and prevention services, an overwhelmed justice system and too little support for families - were discussed at length. But the group spent even more time talking about the city's assets and figuring out new or better ways to use them.
(Gassner) "Make a list, and here we are we're brainstorming. What can we do as a community? And then off of whatever we get up here, we're going to begin to prioritize, Parenting classes. Okay, great."
(Hooker) "Something that I remember from the '70s, when I was having babies, was the welcome wagon. You know, that's a hokey idea maybe. My cousin was a welcome wagon person and she would go to any new person in town with a basket of goodies from local merchants and information about the city and you know, churches."
(Matheson) "I'm thinking in terms of teens not just congregating amongst themselves, but somehow being included, somehow being embraced by the rest of us, and acknowledged as part of our community."
(Spafford) "What if you started on a bigger level with city government - have a meeting dedicated to hearing what young people are interested in on a larger basis."
(Keck) Ideas were discussed, debated, expanded on or tossed out. Toward the end of the fourth and final meeting, participants were asked to prioritize the issues they felt strongest about. This group, which was one of five in the study circle, felt families and teens needed the most support. Multi-generational mentoring programs and parenting classes were high on their list of things the community should push. Harsher punishments for drug offenders and criminals were lower priorities. And while the group wanted to expand restorative justice programs, it also wanted Rutland to do more to help drug offenders and criminals become productive citizens again. Rick Bjorn said the whole process of coming up with priorities was empowering:
(Bjorn) "What comes from this meeting tonight is, if people feel good about the process, they'll talk to others. And maybe it is a baby step, but it is leading to something better and it's a good start."
(Keck) Susan Leach Matheson also felt good about taking part in the study circle, but she voiced the concern everyone shared.
(Matheson) "Do I think we'll be able to accomplish anything with these meetings? I hope so, I think so. What I don't know, it requires skill and coordination. It requires a community coming together and pooling its resources. So, maybe."
(Keck) Crime and drug abuse are complex issues that affect a community on many levels, and most people realize that you're not going to solve them with welcome wagons or youth oriented town meetings. But while it might be easy to dismiss the efforts of a public dialog project like this one, be careful says participant Kitty Canfield:
(Canfield) "Well, I see it as breaking through some isolation. There were people here tonight that had issues that they hadn't talked to anyone about. So they can come here and network with other people and communicate and then build from there. And even if nothing else happens, nobody's going to take that away."
(Keck) While participants may not have solved Rutland's crime or substance abuse problem, they may have done something even more important: begin to rebuild the concept that neighbors really do care about the person next door.
For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland.